Zeitgeist and Giftedness


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The issue of fame

Leonard Nimoy, in I Am Spock, states that there were teachers in Hollywood for practically any additional skill an actor would need to portray a character in a movie. I don’t remember exactly what his list was, but this would include riding horseback, handling an ancient or modern weapon, using some particular musical instrument, speaking in some particular accent correctly, juggling or illusionist skills, various trades, some approach to singing and dancing not already known to the performer, and so on and so forth: I got the impression was that pretty much every skill you could name was covered, and a number of skills you wouldn’t think to name.

With one exception.

Nimoy said that there was one thing that was needed in Hollywood but did not have a single teacher: handling fame.

He talked, for instance, about creative ways of sneaking into a restaurant through the kitchen because a public commotion would happen if one person saw Spock trying to quietly walk into a restaurant’s front door. I’ve heard it said of one cast member of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 that he dresses and acts flamboyantly and strikingly in front of the camera as he should, but consciously turns that off and acts much more nondescriptly in public is usually not noticed. But Mystery Science Theatre 3000 has a smaller audience and is less mainstream; I’m no student of fashion history but a Google image search for Spock shows a consistent haircut, and one that looks to me like it was meant to be distinctive. (One would suspect that TV producers using humans to portray alien races would want actors to sport a distinctive look.)

“Fame Lite”

I might suggest that my own experience is of having some degree of fame, but to a degree that has mostly been a privilege where a much greater amount of fame would bring much more obnoxious difficulties.

I’ve had someone call out, “That’s Jonathan Hayward!” Like a TV actor. Once.

I’ve also had someone ask for my autograph. Once.

I also have paper and Kindle books on Amazon that bring me a symbolic level of monthly income. It’s not on par with the income for working part-time flipping burgers, but it is still more than most authors ever see.

I’ve also repeatedly encountered people who knew me by my writing.

This might be called “sheltered fame,” or “mini-fame”, or “fame lite”, or “fame à la carte“, and I am glad I don’t enjoy a far greater degree of fame. If I were more famous, I might be able to support myself just by writing, but I regard that as being beside the point: I am seeking monasticism on the Holy Mountain, where my job will be to pray and do the obediences assigned by an Elder and be challenged at the level of parents of a first newborn. Or more. The obediences will be meant to free me from my weaknesses: but I will in a very sense not be my own man, even if my Elder’s entire goal in dealing with me is to do whatever is necessary to make me my own God-man in a fuller sense than I could possibly get on my own.

For a last detail of my miniature fame, I receive correspondence from readers, and so far I have been fortunate to be able to respond to every reader email I really can. C.S. Lewis may not have been Orthodox, and he may sound very faithful to the Greek Fathers until you recognize that Mere Christianity marks him as one of the major architects of the ecumenism as we know it today, and ecumenism was formally anathematized by several bishops in the eighties and some serious Orthodox have called ecumenism the ecclesiological heresy of our day. But I want to single out one point about C.S. Lewis’s personal life that is relevant: he made a practice of answering every reader who wrote him, even though that resulted him spending much of his later life answering essentially pastoral correspondence. And on that point I consider myself particularly privileged to be entrusted with some correspondence, but not need nearly enough interactions to the point that it is a heavy ascesis to answer people who write me.

All of this says that I may share in fame in one sense, but I really do not know in the sense that stems from direct personal experience what fame is to household names. I believe that this may be changing. But for now I would like to distance myself from claims to insider status as far as extreme fame goes. My degree of fame, as privilege, is comparable in giftedness to being somewhere a bit below the lower boundary of the range of socially optimal intelligence.

The reason for this piece: Everyman

There is a medieval play, which I have read of but not read, called Everyman. The character is not an individual “me, myself, and I” as is much more common in today’s novels, but a representative of all that is human.

That basic approach to writing was fairly mainstream; perhaps the most famous tale of Everyman is Pilgrim’s Progress, which is a tale of the only way Everyman can be saved. The pilgrim is not characterized as an individual with individual tastes, interests, hobbies (though perhaps expecting hobbies would be anachronistic). He represents in a sort of abstracted form the common story of how one may be saved as understood in the Reformation.

Today that basic approach has mostly fallen out of fashion (or perhaps has some revival I do not know about), but it is not quite dead and perhaps can never die. The assumption in an Amazon review of consumer electronics is that the review should not be about “me, myself, and I” so much as a “what’s ahead” notice to Everyman, meaning other consumers, who are contemplating purchasing that item. Reviews are ideally written from Everyman to Everyman.

This work is intended to be written by and to Everyman, even if that Everyman represents a narrower demographic than the whole of humanity. Significant, and in large measure unique, details are included on the theory that “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The assumption is that a specific picture in living color exposes the rhyme much more readily than a colorless abstraction that is propositionally true for all it treats, but lacks a pulse. It is an established finding in psychology that people are recognized more quickly from a sketched caricature than from an accurate photograph. I do not knowingly offer caricature in this work as such, but I do try to avoid bleeding out colors into abstraction, however correct, unless there are privacy concerns.

Danger! Beware of pedestal.

There is a quotation I’ve heard attributed to Gandhi, running something like, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” At a brief check Snopes marks this as misattributed, and speaking as someone who spent considerable time perusing All Men Are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi, as Told In His Own Words, this simply doesn’t sound like something Gandhi would have ever said; its presence in the chapter “Ahimse or the way of nonviolence” would have been as obtrusive as Gandhi taking a brief moment to endorse some particular brand of toothpaste. Note that decent people do make attributions that are wrong; my Uncle Mark was a tremendously well-loved and respected schoolteacher, and more specifically a history teacher. He would open the day with some particular thought, from eclectic sources ranging over the Bible, Ben Franklin, and other historical figures, and after his passing, one student who had written down these thoughts posted pictures of her notes, and they were really quite a treasure. But one of them attributed “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” to Mark Twain. Sorry, but No. Without looking up exact dates, I believe Mark Twain’s lifetime overlapped those of the founders of modern psychology. The “shock-denial-blah-blah-blah-resignation-acceptance” grieving process could conceivably have been formulated in the nineteenth century, although it doesn’t sound like Freud to me, or any other nineteenth century psychologist I’m aware of. Kind of like how Freud’s various complexes don’t sound like something a behaviorist like Skinner would develop. However, even if we ascribe The Grieving Process to 19th century psychologists, these are technical terms in an obscure discipline, and would have been less-well-known than unconventional approaches to pig breeding or knowledge of how the results different knot techniques vary with different kinds of rope. The Grieving Process of “shock-denial-blah-blah-blah-resignation-acceptance” could absolutely not have been a lapidary part of pop culture that pops up in a remark by an unruly six-year-old boy in Calvin and Hobbes, or where saying “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” instantly telegraphs its intended meaning.

But let’s return to the pseudo-Ghandian quotation regardless of source: “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” As a sloppy sketch, this might be true, but there is a caveat that eviscerates the whole triumphal gist: The last step might not be, “You win.” The last step might be, “They install you on a pedestal.” The difference between winning and being installed on a pedestal is the difference between diamond and diamond-back.

There is a source I read decades back; the book title and even the name of the figure escapes me beyond that he was a scholar of Confucius and perhaps others, Chinese by nationality, and he meticulously documented how, after “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you.”, the last step was “Then they install you on a pedestal.” And he documented how for a figure he studied how people went from hindering and hampering him by opposing him, to hindering and hampering him by launching him on a high pedestal. And the front matter, from a Western scholar and/or translator, said that the pedestal effect he documented in fact played out in the scholar’s own life; he spent the rest of his life trying to achieve constructive results despite the pedestal that he was forever stuck with.

Fr. Seraphim’s unwanted pedestal

I’ve personally raised serious concerns about Fr. Seraphim of Plantina, and it is my considered judgment that he has been harmful and a cause of arrested spiritual development among his Western convert followers. (He is also deeply respected in some Orthodox lands, but I get the impression that a Russian or Greek admirer has a more balanced diet of spiritual reading.) Do Western followers, of the kind who relate to all outsiders as superiors guiding subordinates and often teaching humility first of all, distort Fr. Seraphim? My suspicion is that they fail to live up to Fr. Seraphim’s guidance on some point, and on other points show problems that are 100% faithful to his trajectory. One of the central tenets of what has been called “Orthodox fundamentalism” is that the world is literally about 6,000 years old, and a “Creation Science” lifted from Protestants of yesteryear who were not scientists is the true and final science that proves that. That deeply entrenched feature is one where they are following the Master’s lead. I’ve read Fr. Seraphim charge his readers to straighten out the backwards scientific misunderstandings of people who believe in an ancient universe and either evolution or progressive creation. If this is a pattern, it is not a simple case of ideological hijacking; practically all I have critiqued in The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts: A Glimpse into the Soul of Orthodox Fundamentalism remains faithful to the Master’s guidance. Possibly they exaggerate the importance of Fr. Seraphim’s position on origins; somehow God comes out second banana next to Young Earth Creationism, but if they exaggerated, they took something big and made it even bigger. Whether or not they pushed things further than they should, for to have someone who is a nonscientist (and, at least as I’ve found, wouldn’t recognize even an unsubtle scientific argument at all, even if it bit him on the arse!), gently asks “Have I cornered you?” when the other person is frustrated by a Seraphinian inability to even recognize a scientific argument, diplomatically and gently offer to straighten out a biology PhD’s backwards understanding of science (perhaps by dropping Einsteins’ name and giving an example of how “pilots experience time differently when they’re traveling above the speed of sound“; one friend, on hearing this “example,” winced, slowly gulped, and said, “That’s not even wrong.”)… Someone who does every single one of these things is following in the Master’s footsteps and living up to his exhortations.

There are other points where no matter what harassment I have met from his evangelists, I believe they weren’t faithful to Fr. Seraphim, or at least weren’t faithful to what he hoped for. Probably the kindest remark to him that I can genuinely respect is, “Fr Seraphim (Rose) is included in the mix of folks who tried to explain to folks they were sinners, but were still put on a pedestal anyway.” I have not seriously investigated the contours of Fr. Seraphim as regards guruism, but my understanding is that he would had a very simple answer: “No.” Or maybe he wrote at length about why guruism is toxic. At any rate, he now stands on a very cruel pedestal for a monastic who tried to free people from the idolatry of inordinately focusing on a single charismatic personality. And it seems that there is cruelty to Fr. Seraphim himself, of the sort one would associate with vengeful, schadenfreude-laden claims of poetic justice, except that it was quite the opposite of poetic justice: he challenged guruism, and did his best to dodge it, but his standing today is that of a polestar of a guru who serves as a primary orienting figure to a significant following of Orthodox Christians (you can call them “Orthodox fundamentalists”) where the sun rises and sets on the Master’s teachings.

This is a cruel pedestal, as it would be cruel to celebrate an environmentalist hero by starting many forest fires (in non-pyrogenic ecosystems) to celebrate by the beauty of great leaping flames. I have not read what Fr. Seraphim’s response to his pedestal actually was, but the image comes to mind of Francis of Assisi returning to his movement’s apparent success and being a lone dissent who was utterly aghast that the “success” that had been achieved was his followers’ desertion of his, and their, ever-faithful Lady Poverty.

“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.”

I would like to modify a position I strongly endorsed, albeit in a way some might call superficial.

Dorothy Sayers wrote about how, in recent centuries in the West, there has been a belief that “ideas grow rust like machines and need to be replaced.” And that deliberately crude image spoke to me. Ideas may be wrong from the very beginning and need to be replaced; but the quote “an idea whose time has come” embodies something very strange. The doctrine of progress is tied to this, so that each new idea whose time has come improves the overall picture.

That much I still hold fast to, but with a caveat. I do not believe in progress (one friend summarized the academy as saying “We’ve progressed enough not to believe in progress”), but I do believe that fashion exists and can sometimes have a spooky effect. Mathematicians are well-advised, if they find a solution to a major unsolved problem, to submit it as soon as possible. The core reason is that it is a historically common phenomenon for a question in mathematics to be unsolved for quite some time, and then be solved by several mathematicians independently. And on this count, mathematics would be expected to be perhaps the least Zeitgeist-shaken academic discipline. There are some things that change over time; the standard of mathematical rigor was rising when I was studying it, and the history of the parallel postulate in geometry shows a now-respected mathematician as working out an entirely valid non-Euclidean geometry and then publishing work under the title Euclid Freed From Every Flaw, is not today’s mindset. However, as a general rule, theorems do not go out of fashion. And still mathematics, relatively free from Zeitgeist fashions as it might be, manifests a phenomenon where major problems remain unsolved for a considerable time and then simultaneously be solved by multiple mathematicians. The same has been observed in other areas as well; Nobel Prizes are given to two or three people who make the same discovery almost simultaneously, and independently.

The question of when the automobile was invented is messy and is not “Why, Henry Ford!” even if Henry Ford invented a mass production that drastically reduced the price of an automobile. There is a similar simultaneity, and I’ve read an author enumerate a dozen mechanical inventions, all of them an automobile or something like an automobile, in the West over a short period of time. Questions come into play of, “Where do you draw the line?” and there are what might be called shades of grey or judgment calls. I’m not saying that there can be no decisive resolution to these questions, but unless you settle on the oldest, incomplete candidate, answering “When was the automobile invented?” in a responsible hinges on looking at several vehicles or devices, that were automotive at least in part, and were invented in a surprisingly close interval of time.

Fashions

I would like to illustrate a particular point, and clarify what modification I mean to a standard trope. Phrases like “An idea whose time have come” partly describe a pattern of trends and partly frames things in terms of progress: “An idea whose time has come” is always a gain and never a loss. By contrast, I have come to share belief in the pattern of trends, but in place of framing things as progress, I suggest they be framed in terms of fashion. No one seems to consider that “an idea whose time has come” might be a bad idea that is worse than whatever it replaces. Nor am I the first or only one to frame things in terms of fashion (though my hybrid position might be new, for all I know).

One psychiatrist recounted how the professional community once believed that divorce was so terrible to children that except in the worst and most pathological casess it was worth keeping an very unhappy marriage together so as to avoid inflicting the pain of divorce on the children. Then the psychological community said it progressed to believing that really if a marriage is Hell on earth, the children are really better off with a divorce however nasty divorce may be. Then they claimed to have progressed to realize that an unhappy marriage was horrid, but however horrid it might be on the kids, it really is best to keep the marriage together if possible. His point in this tale of heroism and magic was that the shifts that occurred, both ones he agreed with and ones he didn’t, didn’t represent progress. They represented fashion, and I could envisage him using a term I heard from a quite different figure: “the herd of free thinkers.” Progress, or what at least is labeled as progress, is really more accurately understood as current trends within “the herd of free thinkers.

An example of my own

When I was at Cambridge and my pre-master’s diploma was winding down, I was looking for a topic for a master’s thesis. I wanted to study the holy kiss, and my advisor ridiculed the question and me with it. He asked sarcastic rhetorical questions like “Can we find justification to only kiss the pretty people at church?” When I persisted, he consulted with another scholar and came back, without ridicule, saying the question was under-studied. (This is, by the way, an extreme rarity in academic theology; usually scholars try to find some vestige of unexplored turf and when they fail at that, write things like rehabilitating a founder of heresy, as the Archdruid of Canterbury has done with Arius the father of all heretics.) Furthermore, things never sat well with the department, which kept pushing my work into the pigeonhole of what German scholars called Realia, meaning physical details (other examples of questions of Realia might be what kind of arms and armor a first Christian would have seen a Roman soldier carry, and would have given shape to the words by which St. Paul closes the letter to the Ephesians, or what kind of house would provide the backdrop to Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount about putting a lamp where it will illuminate the whole house. I am not aware of any Cambridge faculty member who was open to the idea that the “divine kiss” (as St. Dionysius the Areopagite called it) might be studied under the rubric of liturgical or sacramental theology.

My desire and interest was a doctrinal study, and my advisor there, who was Orthodox, kept pushing what I was doing into an unedifying sociological study of kissing that involved a great deal of Too Much Information, with lowlights such as the assigned Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. I tried to draw a line in the sand, saying that I wanted to do “a doctrinal study.” He immediately laid down the law: “The best way to do that is to do a cultural study and let any doctrines arise.” Other help that he offered was to suggest that narrowing scope would be helpful, and suggested that it would be a good bailiwick to study “differences between Christian and Jewish understanding of kissing in the Song of Songs.” I held my tongue at saying, “That’s impressive. Not only is that not what I wanted, but that doesn’t overlap with what I wanted.” And then, two thirds of the way through the year, the department decided that my study of the holy kiss was off-topic for the Philosophy of Religion seminar that had been selected for me, and I pulled out all the stops to write, as was demanded, a vastly different Artificial Intelligence as an Arena for Magical Thinking Among Skepticsthat left all my prior thesis work as wasted.

So what’s out there? What did my research turn up?

What kind of doctrines did I pull up? Someone, perhaps with wishful thinking, who wanted the holy kiss to be important might try to attach it somewhere under the rubric of Holy Communion. The last prayer before Holy Communion does the opposite: it places Holy Communion under the heading of the holy kiss. How? “Neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss:” neither like Judas will I give you a hollow kiss, betraying this kiss and you yourself by receiving the Holy Mysteries and then not even try to live a holy life. Incidentally, although there are ancient precursors, it is remarkably recent, 20th century or possibly 19th if I recall correctly, that the ethical concern represented by “a kiss can be seductive” appears in Orthodox theology. In the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collections, the kiss that is wrong is pre-eminently a kiss like that of Judas, the kiss of betrayal which Orthodox remember by fasting on Wednesdays, and was a double-layered betrayal: a betrayal of the Lord first of all, and with it a betrayal of everything a kiss, of all things, should be. In patristic times the holy kiss was a kiss on the mouth, and this is doctrinally significant. A Psalm prayed in preparation for Communion says, “Who is this King of Glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war. Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the Lord, the King of Glory, shall enter in.” St. John Chrysostom drives home the implication: “But about this holy kiss somewhat else may yet be said. To what effect? We are the temple of Christ; we kiss then the porch and entrance of the temple when we kiss each other.” If, in my present locale, the holy kiss is three kisses on alternate cheeks, the underlying reality is unchanged: a liturgical kiss, on the cheek, is always by implication a kiss on the mouth, on the gates that receive the Lord. And indeed St. Ambrose pushes further in his remarkable letter to his sister, discussing how we can kiss Christ: part of the unfolding truth is, “We kiss Christ, then, with the kiss of communion.” There is a very tight tie between the holy kiss and Holy Communion, and while there may be much greater laxity about a closed holy kiss than a closed Chalice, according to strict interpretation of the rules a holy kiss is only ever between two canonical Orthodox Christians. In ancient times the closed holy kiss represented an additional boundary besides a closed Communion after the catechumens actually departed. But even today I have heard a priest lightheartedly say after a convert’s chrismation, “You may kiss the convert.” Something of that essence is here, even though nobody I have met makes a big deal about the enforcement of that rule. One last note here, which may be most of benefit to Catholics: In Rome, there is a sharp “do not cross” line between between the sacraments, including Holy Communion, and what are called “sacramentals”, which include the holy kiss. Sacraments are something that Christ might as well have personally etched in diamond; sacramentals are things the Church worked out that are a different sort of thing that is far below Christ’s sacraments. The Orthodox usually list seven sacraments, and they are in general recognizable in relation to the Roman list of sacraments (overall but not in every detail), but the difference between a sacrament and a sacramental is only a difference of degree, not of kind, and people can say things like, “You can say there is only one sacrament, or that there are a million of them.” If there is one sacrament, it is a Holy Communion where nothing else comes close, but the sacramental of the holy kiss is tied to Holy Communion in multiple ways and participates in its essence. My main, brief work on this topic was in fact called The Eighth Sacrament. The title is provocative, but not daring. For one final point on the holy kiss, at least one aspect of a Protestant framing on worship is that worship is something you do with your spirit; there’s a fairly strong association between worship and singing, or worship and listening to a pastor, perhaps, but worship is contained by the spirit alone. The Orthodox understanding, besides recognizing that it is not a slight to Christ to show reverence to His Mother, refers to an act of adoration that is done with spirit and body alike. As to what the act of adoration that encompasses the body, there are variations and some ambiguity, but the Greek πρσκεω refers to bowing or kissing, usually with some ambiguity as to which physical act completes the adoration. The worship due to the Lord is in some measure to kiss him, and there is a profound tie, even if there are important differences too, between worship of Christ expressed by kissing his icon, and worship of Christ expressed by kissing a fellow Orthodox Christian as so much an icon of Christ that he is defined as being built in the image of the whole Trinity. (I find such things as these loads more interested than sociological investigation of kissing as such.)

(Some people may find an irony between my efforts to study the holy kiss that Judas betrayed, and Cambridge University’s constant “improvements” to how I was approaching that study.)

What it was that I pulled up eventually found a home in fiction in The Sign of the Grail, which is presently one of my top-selling titles on Amazon and top fictional work. I will not attempt to reproduce the material here, beyond saying that it is in fact a doctrinal study, that a number of primary sources can be found in a brief search of the Ante-Nicene and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collections, and to the person who read The Eighth Sacrament and asked didn’t I know there was more, I said that there was much more but that represented my attempt to crystallize something in a tight format.

But what I would point to is this: I am not, to my knowledge, a cardinal influencer in what happened. I presumably influenced someone, somewhere, but what was met with repeated hostility became something mainstream. I don’t think that I was a primary influence in that I met with people who never seemed to recognize me as a pioneer or having already made serious investigation. My suspicion is that had I never touched the matter, it would have still been explored; I may have been the first person to publicly note one particular point, that the holy kiss is the only act the Bible calls holy, but had I never investigated the topic at all, other people would have, and my suspicion is that without me the holy kiss is still a sacramental that would have been studied as doctrinally significant and seen in continuity with sacramental and liturgical theology, and that none of the dubious help I received at Cambridge (such as classifying the holy kiss as Realia and therefore not rightfully subject to direct doctrinal investigations) would have been the last word. I think my inbox has been quiet on this topic for a few years, but when I was getting people contacting me and wanting to inform me about the holy kiss, we were usually on the same page. (I do not recall any nonscholar trying to steer the conversation to fit under the heading of Realia.)

And I would suggest that this basic plot and pattern of events are more or less generic. First I was rudely dismissed, then people kept more rudely pushing my work away from what I asked explicitly, and then some years later when I had practically forgotten the discussion, I was caught off guard by people opening up conversations about the holy kiss. And I may not have “won” in the sense of acquiring a pedestal (good riddance!), but the subject was no longer met with hostility such as was first faced, and some people found it to be of interest. (I have never gotten a disrespectful response on the topic after the point where people started to contact me on the topic.)

It is my general experience that gifted and profoundly gifted people are not, in fact, unaffected by the Zeitgeist. Often they may want to challenge the Zeitgeist, but it is not characteristic to rise above it, and the more common pattern is to concentrate the Zeitgeist and to run ahead of it, perhaps getting into the game when it is greeted with hostility. In this case, I was disappointed when I realized the topic of the holy kiss had reached the status of being more or less fashionable. I felt, if anything, violated that I had channelled the Zeitgeist, a Zeitgeist that had spoken through my mouth.

While the classification is essentially as irrefutable as Berkeley’s arguments, famously said to “admit no answer and produce no conviction,” I don’t find it helpful to say, “If your birthday falls before this year, you are ancient; if your birthday falls in this range, you are medieval; if your birthday falls in this range, you are a modern; if your birthday falls after that range, you are a postmodern.” Some people have noted that not only are engineers modern, but they probably do not know a postmodern, even though postmodern students are easily enough found in other fields. Speaking personally, I’ve been wary of postmodernism, but I have recognized points of overlap. I have been interested in thick description for more than a decade before I heard the term, and what I most want to know in history is “the way it really was,” which is a boilerplate postmodern desire as far as history goes. The postmodern figures I know could justifiably regard me as making an undue claim to insider status if I claimed to also be a postmodern, but I see more continuities now than I would like, or that I did before.

(I might briefly point out that “thick description” and “the way it really was” remains fundamental and guiding principles in the endeavor of this article, where a synopsis would be much easier to write, much briefer, and much easier to read. I could simply state that I pursued scholarly research into the holy kiss years before it was fashionable to do so, and that I sought a doctrinal, and sacramental or liturgical, study of the holy kiss where a respected Orthodox scholar only saw legitimate room for a secular history of kissing. That much is true, but it is a sketched outline where my hope is to portray something in depth and full living color.)

Other examples

One friend talked about how a boy entered an Orthodox altar to serve as an acolyte, and the priest brusquely told him to unvest, leave the altar, take off his tie, and come back without his tie; the stated reason was, “You are not a slave!”

This was presented as counter-cultural, and it may have been such at some point. However, it fits with another conversation where a business owner had individual contributors wear ties, managers wear a suit and tie, and the owner wore a suit and no tie. Last I seriously checked in, the professional jobseeker fashion was for men not to wear ties.

I might mention, by the way, that when something is taking credit for being countercultural, it’s usually a mainstream fashion before too long.

Last example for now: it is presented that violin-making is a “fossil trade.” This trade may be mostly or exclusively practiced by violinists; I doubt I could produce a decent violin personally unless I had enough exposure to recognize good and bad-quality violins. Possibly I could learn enough to be a luthier without developing the level of skill appropriate to public performance; but I rather guess that takes less practice to be able to perform well in public than to be in a position to make a good violin. And on that score, I met or heard of one luthier, introducing violin-making as a “fossil trade”, and then the count quickly escalated to something like half a dozen. On which point I suggest that it’s a turn in fashion, and the number of people embracing the new fashion is chiefly limited by the fact that most people have never been trained to play a violin. (I’ve never, to my recollection, heard a musician say, “I play the violin but I am not interested in becoming a luthier.”)

Icon and Idol

There is something about the theology of icons in Orthodoxy that looms so large that I missed something.

In one passage that I have never heard Orthodox quote, Herod dressed royally, gave a stunningly good speech, and the people who were listening shouted “The voice of a god and not a man!” and when he accepts this praise and fails to give God glory, God infests him with worms and kills him.

This is as good a place as any I see to introduce the distinction between an icon and an idol. And please do not see the distinction in terms of “If an Orthodox Christian makes it with paint and gold on wood it is an icon, and if a Hindu makes it a statue with many arms it is an idol.” I don’t remember what they are, but I’ve heard from Hindus some very nuanced thoughts about god(s) and idols. For that matter, I don’t especially wish to discuss idols in relation to Graeco-Roman paganism, even though they, and Old Testament ancestors, form the basis for the universal Orthodox condemnation of idolatry. I wish to articulate a distinction, not from comparative religion as such, but as a distinction within Christianity.

Probably the #1 metaphorical name for icons is “windows to Heaven”, and the theology that St. John the Damascene among others articulated is that the honor paid to an icon passes on to the prototype. Honor to an icon of a saint honors the saint; honoring the saint honors Christ. While I am not aware of people using the term “icon” in reference to the saints’ lives, reading the saints’ lives is strongly encouraged for beginner and expert alike, and what it is that’s really worth reading in saints’ lives is that you see to a small degree the face of Christ, otherwise it’s not worth reading. This theology undergirds structures, and supports an understanding of the human person as made in the image of God, which I have not seen disowned in Western Christianity, but it grows on poor soil. Although terms like ‘icon’ and ‘image’ are not used in this specific passage, looking on and treating people as the image of Christ is given a chillingly sharp edge in Matthew 25:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, â”Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?” And the King shall answer and say unto them, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, “Depart from me, ye who are damned, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.” Then shall they also answer him, saying, “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not serve thee?” Then shall he answer them, saying, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

The damned are damned because they failed to love and honor the icon of Christ, and the insult might have as well been made to Christ personally. That’s how he felt it.

With all of these things said, and I am really not trying to shoehorn a place to save the Greek fathers’ teaching that we should become divine, Herod was not destroyed because he allowed himself to divine honor. He was destroyed because, receiving divine honor, he failed to pass it on to God whom it properly belonged to. Given the choice between letting honor pass on through him to the creator, and keeping it to himself, he chose to stop the honor from rising higher, and that is the difference between being an icon and being an idol.

Orthodox who like me (or for that matter Orthodox who don’t like me, but are choosing to be polite) pay a respect whose contours are set by the Orthodox theology of icon and image: I am respected for being made in the image of God, not for being godlike on my own. Respect for my writing has drawn, if I may mention my most-cherished compliment, “You write verbal icons!” The respect paid to my writing is a subordinate respect to works that salute One greater than them, and the respect paid to me is a subordinate respect that salutes One greater than me. I am respected for being to some degree divine by grace (people wanting a Biblical proof-text may cite 2 Peter 1:4 which dares to call us “partakers of the divine nature”); I am not in any sense honored as being a god in some sense independent of the Creator or stopping with me instead of referring glory to the Creator. Evangelicals often like my works, and while they may not have the doctrine of the image of God defined in such articulate and sharp contours, there is some continuity in respect I have received. Specifically, it is practically always a subordinate respect, and my works are praised as drawing them to God. There is a tale, true or apocryphal, of a visiting African pastor who came to the U.S., and after observing things, said, “It is amazing what you can do without the Holy Spirit!” Evangelicals have never praised me for being great without needing God’s help, and if they did it would most likely be sarcasm or a stinging rebuke, almost on par with saying that something is “more important than God.” Among both Orthodox and Evangelicals, whatever the differences may be, to be great is to be permeated by God’s grace.

I will comment briefly, for the sake of completeness, on one point where I am just a beginner. The saints do not seek ordinate human honor; they usually try to dodge all human honor at all whether or not that honor is ultimately referred to God, and some among them have immediately left town, without any sort of modern vehicle, if that is what it took to dodge human honor after their gifts had been discovered. I am not at the stature to do that, at least not yet. However, hostility and abuse come quickly nipping at the heels of honor, and I am trying to progressively restrain searching for human honor or accepting unsought human honor. My author bio has become progressively shorter, and at present the main glory I claim is that of a member of the royal human race. The more time passes, the more I think that seeking human honor is a fundamental error, a way of “drinking out of the toilet” that deserves a section in A Pet Owner’s Rules as something that, if you know what you’re doing, you really, really don’t want to do. On that score, I count myself fortunate that, while I was a forerunner who ran ahead of the Zeitgeist in study of the holy kiss as a legitimate matter of doctrinal study, I didn’t acquire a pedestal in reward for my endeavors. That’s about as much winning as I’d ask.

And there is one other point to mention: usually, people who have respected me have respected me like some minor icon. I had guessed, with excusable but near-disastrous naïvete, that if in the future I am put on a pedestal, I will receive more of the same and I will serve as an icon in not the best position. Now I believe it far more likely for me to put on a pedestal as an idol rather than an icon. The Church does legitimately place people on pedestals as icons; I believe that the practice of choosing bishops from the pool of monks is, without judgement against the married, a good monastic may have a fighting chance of surviving and functioning effectively in an ordeal where the title of “Bishop” has a job description of, “Whole burnt-offering without remainder.

The Orthodox Church can, at least sometimes, put an icon on a pedestal…

…but the Zeitgeist only knows one trick: putting an idol on a pedestal, adapting an icon to function as an idol if need be.

A cloud the size of a man’s hand

St. James, the brother of the Lord, wrote, “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.” This is extraordinarily terse compared to the Old Testament narrative, albeit completely faithful. But I would like to give just one vignette not unfolded in this shorthand reminder about the story: it has been a long time since it rained, and there is a deep famine, and there has been an ongoing rivalry with multiple dimensions between the wicked King Ahab and St. Elias. There is the great contest with the prophets of Ba’al; St. Elias, who has suggested that (in modern terms) “Maybe Ba’al isn’t answering your hours of frenzied prayer because he just can’t come into the phone now,” asks that his one prophet’s sacrifice to the God of Israel be drenched with excessive /mounts of water. (Saltwater, perhaps: freshwater may have been extremely hard to come by, and rare enough to make a terrible famine, but any time during the famine you could go to the Red Sea and take as much particularly salty saltwater as you could carry.) After Ba’al had already failed to get off his porcelain throne, St. Elias makes one single prayer and calls down fire from Heaven that consumes his entire dripping sacrifice.

That story is famous; but there is a slightly less famous dramatic detail that is worth noting. St. Elias told his servant to go and look out by the sea. The servant comes back, and says, “I see nothing.” St. Elias, who had told the servants to pour water on his sacrifice again after it was already quite wet, and then for good measure asked for water to be poured a third time on already drenched it again. But for the servant, he goes six times reporting nothing, anad the seventh time he barely says, “I see a cloud the size of a man’s hand.” At that point St. Elias sends his servant to tell King Ahab to get in his chariot and get back to his castle before he would be trapped in mire by the deluge.

If you are profoundly gifted, and you think of or take a position that is attacked and ridiculed beyond due measure (and, honestly, make a good allowance for due measure), it is my suspicion that the opinion you are ridiculed for will be the fashion in 5-10 years, or longer if it’s something profound. I try to respectfully welcome visitors to my website, although some people have clearly stated that I have failed in that measure, but I pay particular attention to profoundly gifted who contact me, not because they are better than other visitors, but out of survival instinct (and recognition of a shared experience, a bit like another actor who had the cumbersome side of equal fame would be on the same page as Leonard Nimoy about sneaking into restaurants by the kitchen, and that I had better therefore try to listen hospitably). Those emails usually provide an advisory that’s a bit like insider trading, though I have never made a financial decision that was influenced by the outcome of such conversation. They, in essence, by running ahead of the Zeitgeist, let you know what’s coming. And the profoundly gifted I meet usually see something that I don’t.

Chris Langan, considered the most gifted member in almost all ultra-high-IQ society (or some might give that accolade to Paul Cooijmans), has worked on a CTMU or “Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe”, pronounced “cat-moo” by insiders, with homepage at CTMU.org, which I don’t agree with: one conversation helped me see the need to write works such as “Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution after I left him flabbergasted by saying I was not interested in cosmology. (Note: In the years after I wrote “Religion and Science” Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution, things have shifted almost to a point that alleging some opponent of “scientism” is in and of itself halfway there to, “A hit, a very palpable hit!” And again I am not a prime actor.) However, I am inclined to regard Chris Langan’s CTMU as significant on the evidence by how hard people fight against it alone. I know that some profoundly gifted individuals suffer from mental illness, and in fact I believe mental illness is significantly more likely among the profoundly gifted than otherwise. He is called a crackpot, but meeting him face-to-face and conversing via email do not give me any reason for agreeing with the label about him as a person. Every interaction I’ve had with him has had him looking brilliant and in touch with reality. It’s possible enough to be brilliant, in touch with reality, and wrong, but I have not heard of any critic recognize one point which is consensus under the tail end of the high-IQ community: that he is bright such as few people ever set eyes on. Characteristic of the reception of the CTMU is that its main page on Wikipedia was deleted, but its CTMU Wikipedia talk page is still there. Possibly the CTMU does not lend itself to experimental investigation: but we live in a time where superstring theory is very much in vogue, and where we are very hard-pressed to find a feasible or even infeasible experiment where superstring theory predicts a measurably different outcome from the best predecessor theories, and it is genuinely provocative to say “Physics is an empirical, hard science and as such is not validly practiced without claims being accountable to being tested by experiment.” And maybe we should remember, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” If we are going to join in the euphoria about superstring theory, perhaps we would do well to give the Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe a fair hearing. The main reason I believe it is significant is that it is ridiculed well beyond the hostility that greeted my study of the holy kiss. He is consistently and repeatedly dismissed as a sheer crackpot, but people do not spend anywhere near that much energy dismissing genuine crackpots as crackpots. I continue to believe in the conceptual framework’s significance even if I do not subscribe to it.

Not all clouds in the sky are tied to giftedness. I saw a major step towards Nazification in Amazon, and then Apple, drop anything bearing a confederate flag faster than a hot potato. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus made quite an opposite point in saying that if a Klu Klux Klansman wanted to injure black America, he could scarcely do better than promote Afrocentrism. Here, it may be said that white racism has had a bad name for quite a long time. That doesn’t mean that it was ever nonexistant, but most whites at least tried to not be racist, or become less racist. Here it might be said that if you want “white nationalism” (great job on the layer of whitewash, but befriend a “white nationalist” on Facebook and your feed will have Nazi flags and news articles with comments fantasizing about “[insert alternate spelling of the N-word]” criminals being lynched) to attract droves of new followers, and make white racism respectable in many places where it is not at all respectable now, you can scarcely do better than to continue flipping the bird at white descendents of the Confederacy. The significance of Amazon dropping displays of the Confederate flag is not that some goods were delisted or that the censorship affected some people’s income; the significance is essentially an announcement of a new direction in policy, as illustrated in a very first installment. I don’t know who’s safe as this enlightening policy goes; I have serious difficulties believing it will remain confined to black-white relations in race, or that purges will remain only in the South. I don’t consider myself safe, and I honestly am not sure that even people trying to be politically correct are safe. At the French Revolution, there was serious scope creep in the public enemies who were sent to the guillotine, a monstronsity that at the end was killing cleaning maids and children seven or eight years old with people standing by the foot of the guillotine to be sprayed by the enemies of states’ blood and eat their still-living flesh. And this happened in an educated Republic. The present removal of venerated public statues is not a final installment; it is if anything a reminder that the overhaul is just beginning. But there was a cloud in the sky the size of a man’s hand when Amazon dropped the Confederate flag. I have come to believe some non-Southern perspectives, that yes, the Confederacy was fighting for States’ rights, but the States’ rights were chiefly the right to maintain slavery. But the moral I take is not that white Southerners are being asked to make a few adjustments; the moral I take is that we would be well advised to read “The Cold Within” and that those of us who are not white Southerners should not say “This does not concern us.” The classic poem “The Cold Within” reads:

THE COLD WITHIN

Six humans trapped by happenstance
In bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood
Or so the story’s told.

Their dying fire in need of logs
The first man held his back
For of the faces round the fire
He noticed one was black.

The next man looking’cross the way’
Saw one not of his church
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.

The third one sat in tattered clothes.
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?

The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy shiftless poor.

The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight.
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.

The last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.

Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without
They died from the cold within.

It’s not often that I quote an ecumenist poem as authoritative. In this case the point is universally human, and while I believe in an Orthodox closed communion, I believe that nothing that is truly human should be foreign to me.

A change in experience

It was sometime in the past few months that I began asking pastoral questions about what to do with someone who is in awe of me.

The motivation and intended nuance, which I did not end up making clear, could be outlined as follows. Years back, my Mom invited neighbors across the street to some minor social function. They hesitantly said, “No,” not because the suggestion was unwelcome but because it would create a scheduling conflict, and they wanted to know, in effect, whether their “No” had alienated her. She was pretty quick to answer, “This is valuable!” She explained that now that she knew they would be willing to say “No” to a suggestion that would be less that ideal for them, or a scheduling conflict, or… Now part of this was politeness or a gracious response, but I believe she genuinely meant what she said about knowing they would be willing to say “No” when they should say “No,” and she was genuinely grateful for a safety-net of “I can extend an invitation and not worry about whether they’ll give a ‘Yes’ they shouldn’t be giving.” And in that framework, I was motivated by a difficulty. Most visitors have and maintain boundaries. Not that everything is perfect, but my visitors have been willing both to say “Yes” and “No,” and in general do not seem to worry about dealing a capital insult if they happen to say “No.”

Boundaries matter, even if I’ve voiced serious objections to Cloud and Townsend, and I felt myself in the uncomfortable position of negotiating with someone who was defenseless before me, who was too far below me in his conception to express a boundary, who would only answer “Yes” no matter how destructive a “Yes” would be, and where any knowledge that I sometimes sin and I am sometimes wrong exists only on a purely academic plane. I know there are cultures where this kind of dynamic is normal and something people can deal with, but I felt really uncomfortable and really at a loss.

The pastoral advice I received was helpful, particularly in a reminder that people that, to a one, shout “Hosanna!” and spread palm branches are entirely capable of shouting, to a one, “Crucify him!” five days later. And in Christ’s case the earlier accolades were accurate, and higher accolades would have been justified. In my case the “Hosanna!” is in fact not justified, and as I was reminded of the toxic nature of all human praise. (I am looking forward to the possibility in monasticism of being under the authority of an Abbot who treats everyone with deep respect, but might not give a single compliment, or at least not to me.)

And things like this, though varied and though I wish to refrain from providing thick description’s details out of concern for others’ privacy, have become a consistent fixture. Though varied in detail, the attempt is to place me on some minor pedestal, on terms that are unreal to me, and probably unreal to me because they are unreal to God. I regard it as very fortunate that the inundations of compliments have, by God’s grace, appeared utterly unreal to me. Future temptations will probably be more subtle.

Clearing away a distraction: NF goggles

David Kiersey’s Please Understand Me (I prefer the first edition to the more than the second) is one introduction to classical temperament theory. The book has hypocrisy as well as strengths; it is eminently nonjudgmental in describing one temperament’s liability to promiscuity, or another doing whatever their system of ideas calls for, or another’s doing what their spiritual path calls for, but when one temperament tends towards chastity or fidelity, it is described in language that is at once clinical, and the most degrading language in the entire book: metaphors are used as a basis to this temperament with seeing sex as basically a merely economic commodity, or something like being physically dirty or clean. Classic postmodern hypocrisy here.

However, there is one particular point that I wanted to pull: the “iNtuitive Feeling” or “NF” type, which is ascribed what might be the most striking characteristic in the book: they appear to other people, without any effort on their part to cause this, to be whatever the other person would most like them to be. People look at them through rosy “NF goggles,” if you will. I think I can usually detect NF’s, albeit indirectly: I am drawn to another person, especially women, to a degree that is out of step with that person’s attractiveness and the social setting, even though there is very little I have directly observed as signs of what is going on (the one cue I notice is that about half the time they appear close to crying). My guess is that this boils down to a layer of nonverbal communication that is possibly very subtle, even if it is still very effective and does not apply, or applies far less, to email and other basic electronic communication that flattens nonverbal signals beyond emoticons.

A question might be raised of, “How little or much of an NF are you?” Before Orthodoxy I considered myself to be at the boundary between “NT” (“iNtuitive Thinking”) and NF, called NX, and wanting to shift towards NF. In Orthodoxy I found that silence that I desired personally was not my particular personal trait, but something normative, and the Orthodox Church’s hesychasm or silence is bigger than what I had. Similarly, the Orthodox Church out-NFed me by making normative observations like, “The longest journey we will ever take is the journey from our mind to our heart.” In both cases the Orthodox Church’s answer was to challenge me to go further. And that raises at very least the possibility that I am close enough to (or far enough into) NF territory that some people see me through NF goggles.

I admit this as a possibility, and furthermore a possibility I think is at least probable. There is always some ambiguity and I do misunderstand some social setting, but there have been face-to-face encounters where someone seemed to really like me as something I wasn’t. I’ve worked hard to write well and I’ve received some very rosy compliments, but usually the reader and I are on the same page about what a particular work is doing. (Most strands of criticism are also usually something I can recognize as a response to something I wrote.) My writing is usually not taken to be whatever the reader would like it to be. So while I admit a likely NF layer to people drawn to me in person, the majority of the encounters where I’ve been offered a pedestal have been online, with people who have not met me face-to-face, or electronic communication that preserves nonverbal information such as Skype’s offerings. So the question of whether my nonverbal communication is enchanting is largely beside the point. Whether the answer is true or false, the question is irrelevant.

A tentative conclusion

I remember thinking, “My website hasn’t really changed; why is the response to it changing?” And then I came to a “Yes, but…” answer. Most of what I consider the best works are relatively old, at least a couple of years; the only one I would consider “inspired” (in a broad and secular sense) is Eight-Year-Old Boy Diagnosed With Machiavellian Syndrome By Proxy (MSBP), which I would genuinely place alongside Evangelical Converts Trying to Be Orthodox and Pope Makes Historic Ecumenical Bid to Woo Eastern Rite Catholics for quality. The previous Monasticism for Protestantsand this work itself I consider to serve a legitimate purpose not served by anything else among my posts, but they are not classics.

So why, if my website hasn’t grown any major new features for quite some time, why would it be drawing fundamentally different response? The answer is simple, and one I should have predicted: I’ve run ahead of the Zeitgeist, whether I had the faintest intent of doing so or not. Whether or not it’s the same article, some of what I wrote may draw people more effectively now than when they were fresh and new.

And the question of a pedestal weighs on my mind. Advertisements run repeatedly because people don’t fall for a product the first time they see an advertisement targeted to them; they fall after repeated familiarity. Only humility can pass through certain snares: and I am scarcely humble. I see the possibility that, some time after I have seen five or so clouds the size of a man’s hand, a deluge will break forth. And I would really prefer the storm hit me when I am on Mount Athos, as a novice under the authority of an Elder, who does not care how smart I am and who sees that I have the same needs as many other novices, such as humility and obediences that build humility. Possibly I will not escape the deluge by getting to Mount Athos before it breaks: but I’ll take my chances with a loving Elder rather than my own wisdom.

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Surgeon General’s Warning

It has happened occasionally that something I’ve written as a lone voice has a few years later become the mainstream. Such was my academic interest in the holy kiss, one tiny snippet of which is in The Eighth Sacrament and which is a theme in The Sign of the Grail. When I proposed study, my own advisor subjected me to social ridicule until I persisted and he said, “I don’t know. It seems not to be researched.” Five years later, it entered the Zeitgeist and I had people asking if I knew more than The Eighth Sacrament (a work which was in fact intended to be a tiny crystallization of a vast body of research about the only act the Bible calls holy).

The opening paragraph to this work states, “Alchemy is a more jarring image.” No, it isn’t, or at least not any more; alchemy has been coming out of the closet for years, and aside from bestsellers, I worked once at the American Medical Association, an organization founded to shut down homeopathic occult medicine in favor of medicine that would today be seen as mostly scientific, and in the place of artwork there was a large handmade quilt by the cafeteria explaining numerous alchemical symbols. Touchstone Magazine is kind of “C.S. Lewis meets Eastern Orthodoxy,” there was an article explaining that Harry Potter is not occult sin; it’s just clean alchemical imagery that is perfectly innocuous, included just the same as other English greats, including C.S. Lewis.

Usually when I find I’ve served as a forerunner heralding the future Zeitgeist, I don’t get too puffed up. It’s more like an occasion for self-examination where I try to understand how I got things so wrong.

This piece is available. Use with caution.

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As I write, I am in a couch in a large parlor looking out on an atrium with over a dozen marble pillars, onto another parlor on the other side. I have spent the day wandering around a college campus and enjoying the exploration. I’ve gotten little of the homework done that I meant to do (reading and writing about a theologian), and spent most of my energies trying to dodge the sense that the best way to explain what I want to explain about time is to begin with a classical form of alchemy. (The other alternative to lead into the discussion would be to start talking about Augustine, but that could more easily create a false familiarity. Alchemy is a more jarring image.)

Alchemy is one of those subjects most people learn about by rumor, which means in that case that almost everything we “know” about it is false. Trying to understand it through today’s ideas of science, magic, and proto-science is like trying to understand nonfiction reference materials, like an encyclopedia, through the categories of fiction and poetry, or conversely trying to understand fictional and poetic works through (the non-fiction parts of) the Dewey Decimal system.

It is much more accurate to say that alchemy is a particular religious tradition, perhaps a flawed religious tradition, which was meant to transform its practitioners and embrace matter in the process. It may be rejected as heresy, but it is impossible to really understand heresy until you understand that heresy is impressively similar to orthodox Christianity, confusingly similar, and ‘heresy’ does not mean “the absolute opposite of what Christians believe.” (Heresy is far more seductive than that.) Perhaps you may have heard the rumor that alchemists sought to turn lead into gold. The verdict on this historical urban legend, as with many urban legends, is, “Yes, but…”

Alchemy sought a way to turn lead into gold, but it has absolutely nothing to offer the greedy person who wants money to indulge his greed. Alchemy is scarcely more about turning lead into gold than astronomy is about telescopes. A telescope is a tool an astronomer uses to observe his real quarry, the stars as best they can be observed, and the alchemist, who sought to make matter into spirit and spirit into matter was trying to establish a spiritual bond with the matter so that the metals were incorporated into the person being performed. An Orthodox Christian might say the alchemist was seeking to be transfigured, even if that was a spiritually toxic way of seeking transfiguration or transformation—which is to say that the alchemist sought a profound and spiritual good. The alchemist sought gold that was above 24 karat purity, which is absurd if you think in today’s material terms about a karat gold that was chemically up to 100% (24k) pure… but what we call a “chemist” today is the successor to what alchemists called “charcoal blowers”, and chemistry today is a more sophisticated form of what the “charcoal blowers” were doing, not the alchemists. But the desire for purer-than-24k-gold becomes a much clearer and more intelligible desire when you understand that gold was not seen by the alchemists as simply a “container” for economic value, but the most noble substance in the material world. (And a “material” world that is not just “material” as Americans today would understand it.) If you look at Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about “Store up treasures in Heaven,” and “Do not store up treasures on earth,” the alchemists’ desire to transmute metals and eventually produce gold is much more of a treasure in Heaven than merely a treasure on earth. (Think about why it is better to have a heart of gold and no merely physical gold than have all the merely physical gold in the world and a heart of ice with it.)

Newton, introduced to me as one of the greatest physicists, spent more time on alchemy than on the science he is remembered for today. He was also, among other things, an incredibly abrasive person and proof that while alchemy promises spiritual transformation it at least sometimes fails miserably, and there are a lot of other scathing things one could say about alchemy that I will refrain from saying. But I would like to suggest one way we could learn something from the alchemists:

When I wanted to explain the term “charcoal blower” by giving a good analogy for it, I searched and searched and couldn’t find the same kind of pejorative term today. I don’t mean that I couldn’t find another epithet that was equally abrasive; we have insults just as insulting. But I couldn’t find another term that was pejorative for the same reason. The closest parallels I found (and they were reasonably close parallels) to what lie behind the name of “charcoal blower” would be how a serious artist would see a colleague who produced mercenary propaganda for the highest bidder, or how a clergyman who chose the ministry to love God and serve his neighbor would view people who entered the clergy for prestige and power over others. (It may be a sign of a problem on our side that while we can understand why people might be offended in these cases, we do not (as the alchemists did) have a term that embodies that reprobation. The alchemists called proto-chemists “charcoal blowers” because the alchemists had a pulse.)

To an alchemist, a “charcoal blower” was someone merely interested in what we would today call the science of chemistry and its applications—and someone who completely failed to pursue spiritual purification. Calling someone a “charcoal blower” is akin to calling someone an “irreligious, power hungry minister.” Whether they were right in this estimation or not, alchemists would not have recognized chemistry as a more mature development of alchemy. They would have seen today’s chemistry as a completely unspiritual parody of their endeavor: perhaps a meticulous and sophisticated unspiritual parody, but a parody none the less.

This provides a glimpse of a thing, or a kind of thing, that can be very difficult to see today. “Alchemy is a crude, superstitious predecessor to real chemistry” or “Chemistry is alchemy that’s gotten its act together” is what people often assume when the only categories they have are shaped by our age’s massive scientific influence.

Science is a big enough force that young earth Creationists deny Darwinian evolution by assuming that Genesis 1 is answering the same kind of questions that evolution is concerned with, namely “What were the material details of how life came to be?”What was the mechanism that caused those details to happen?” That is to say, young earth Creationism still assumes that if Genesis 1 is true, that could only mean that it is doing the same job as evolution while providing different answers. It is very difficult for many people to see that Genesis 1-2 might address questions that evolution never raises: neo-Darwinian evolution is silent or ambivalent about all questions of meaning (if it does not answer “There is no meaning and that is not a question mature scientists should ask.”). It is a serious problem if young earth proponents can read Genesis 1 and be insensitive to how the texts speak to questions of “What significance/meaning/purpose/goal does each creation and the whole Creation live and breathe?” This may be a simplification, but we live in enough of a scientific age that many people who oppose the juggernaut (in this case, neo-Darwinian evolution) still resort to disturbingly scientific frameworks and can show a pathological dependence of scientific ways of looking at the world, even when there is no conscious attempt to be scientific. Perhaps evolutionists may accuse young earth Creationists of not being scientific enough, but I would suggest that the deepest problem is that they are too scientific: they may not meet the yardstick in non-Creationist biology departments, but they try to play the game of science hard enough that whatever critique you may offer of their success in gaining science’s sight, nobody notices how perfectly they gain science’s blind spots—even when they are blind spots that make more sense to find in a neo-Darwinist but are extremely strange in a religiously motivated movement.

This is symptomatic of today’s Zeitgeist, and it affects our understanding of time.

Time is something that I don’t think can be unraveled without being able to question the assumed science-like categories and framework that define what is thinkable when we have no pretensions of thinking scientifically, along lines like what I have said of alchemy. I’m not really interested in calling chemists “charcoal blowers”: the Pythagoreans would probably censure me in similar vein after finding I ranked such-and-such in a major math competition, did my first master’s in applied math, and to their horror studied a mathematics that was completely secularized and had absolutely nothing of the “sacred science”spiritual discipline” character of their geometry left.

I may not want to call scientists “charcoal blowers”, but I do want to say and explore things that cannot be said unless we appreciate something else. That something else… If you say that alchemy disintegrated to become chemistry, that something else disintegrated in alchemy with its secrets and something else purportedly better than what was in the open. Alchemy has a host of problems that need to be peeled back; they may be different problems than those of our scientific age, and it may make a helpful illustration before the peeling back further and cutting deeper that is my real goal, but it is a problematic illustration.

I once would have said that classical (Newtonian) physics was simply a mathematical formalization of our common sense. My idea of this began when I was taking a class that dealt with modern physics (after covering Einstein’s theory of relativity). I grappled with something that many budding physicists grapple with: compared to classical physics, the theory of relativity and modern physics are remarkably counter-intuitive. One wag said, “God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was Newton. The Devil howled, ‘Let darkness return!’ And there was Einstein [and then modern physics], and the status quo was restored.” Modern physics may describe our world’s behavior more accurately, but it takes the strangest route to get to its result: not only is light both a particle and a wave, but everything, from a sound wave to you, is both a particle and a wave; nothing is exactly at any one place (we’re all spread throughout the whole universe but particularly densely concentrated in some places more than others); it can depend on your frame of reference whether two things happen simultaneously; Newton’s mathematically simple, coherent, lovely grid for all of space no longer exists, even if you don’t consider space having all sorts of curvatures that aren’t that hard to describe mathematically but are impossible to directly visualize. (And that was before superstring theory came into vogue; it seems that whatever doesn’t kill physics makes it stranger.)

I would make one perhaps subtle, but important, change to what I said earlier, that classical Newtonian physics is a mathematical expression of common sense: I had things backwards and the Western common sense I grew up with is a non-mathematical paraphrase of classical physics.

One thing Einstein dismantled was a single absolute grid for space and a single timeline that everything fit on. That was something Newton (and perhaps others—see the chapter “The Remarkable Masculine Birth of Time” in Science as Salvation, Mary Midgley) worked hard to establish. What people are not fond of saying today is that “It’s all relative” is something people might like to be backed by Einstein’s theory, but relativity is no more relativism than ‘lightning’ is ‘lightning bug’. In that sense the theory of relativity makes a far smaller difference than you might expect… Einstein if anything fine-tuned Newton’s timeline and grid and left behind something practically indistinguishable. But let’s look at Newton’s timeline and not look at almost equivalent replacements later physics has fine-tuned. All of space fits on a single absolute grid and all of time is to be understood in terms of its place on a timeline. This is physics shaping the rest of its culture. It’s also something many cultures do not share. I do not mean that the laws of physics only apply where people believe in them; setting aside miracles, a stove works as Newtonian physics says it should whether you worship Newton, defy him and disbelieve him whenever you can, or simply have never thought of physics in connection with your stove. I don’t mean that kind of “subjective reality”. That’s not what I’m saying. But the experience of space as “what fits on a grid”, so that a grid you cannot touch is a deeper reality than the things you see and touch every day, and the experience of time as “what fits on a timeline” is something that can be weaker or often nonexistent in other cultures. It’s not an essential to how humans automatically experience the world.

There is a medieval icon of two saints from different centuries meeting; this is not a strange thing to portray in a medieval context because much as space was not “what fills out a grid” but spaces (plural) which were more or less their own worlds, enclosed as our rooms are, time was not defined as “what clocks measure” even if people just began to use clocks.

Quick—what are the time and date? I would expect you to know the year immediately (or maybe misremember because the year has just changed), and quite possibly have a watch that keeps track of seconds.

Quick—what latitude and longitude you are at? If you didn’t or don’t know the Chicago area and read in a human interest news story that someone took an afternoon stroll from Homewood to Schaumburg, IL, would those two names make the statement seem strange?

What if you continued reading and found out that Homewood is at 41°34’46″N and 87°39’57″W and Schaumburg is at 42°01’39″N and 88°05’32W? Setting aside the quite significant fact that most of us don’t tell latitude and longitude when we see a place name, what would that say?

If you do the calculations, you see that saying someone walked from Homewood to Schaumburg and back in an afternoon is like a newspaper saying that the President was born in 671. Schaumburg and Homewood are both Chicago suburbs, but in almost opposite directions, and to the best of my knowledge no distance runner could run from Homewood to Schaumburg to Homewood in an afternoon—even in good traffic the drive would chew up more than a little bit of an afternoon.

Do you see the difference between how we approach and experience our position on the time-grid on the one-hand, and our latitudinal and longitudinal position on the other? Setting aside various questions about calendars, I would suggest that the way most of us neither know nor care what latitude and longitude we’re at, can give a glimpse into how a great many people neither know nor cared not only what a watch says but what century they’re in. (Quick—does your country include the “turn of the century” for degrees latitude or longitude?)

There are other things to say; I want to get into chronos or kairos, and some of the meaning of “You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.” (One facet, besides the wordplay, is that time is an image of not only eternity but the Eternal One.) There are several images of time, or names of time, that I wish to explore; none of them is perfect, but all of them say something. But first let me give the question I am trying to answer.

The Question

Before I say more about time in the sense of giving names to it, I would like to explain the question I am trying to answer, because it is perhaps idiosyncratically my own question, and one that may not be entirely obvious.

There is a book on college admissions essays that listed cliché student essays that almost immediately make an admissions reader’s eyes glaze over. Among these was The Travel Experience, which went something like this:

In my trip to ________, I discovered a different way of life that challenged many of my assumptions. It even challenged assumptions I didn’t know I had! Yet I discovered that their way of life is also valid and also human.

Note that this boiled down essay is ambiguous, not only about what region or what country, but for that matter what continent the writer has been to. And thus, however deep and interesting the experience itself may have been, the writeup is cliché and uninteresting.

This, in my opinion, is because the experience is deep in a way that is difficult to convey. If something funny happened yesterday on the way to the store, it is perfectly straightforward to explain what happened, but a deep cross-cultural counter is the sort of thing people grasp at words to convey. It’s like the deepest gratitude that doesn’t know how to express itself except by repeating the cliché, “Words cannot express my gratitude to you.”

I’m from the U.S. and have lived in Malaysia, France, and England (in that order). I was only in Malaysia for a couple of months, but I was baptized there, and I have fond memories of my time there—I understand why a lot of Westerners come to Malaysia and want to spend the rest of their lives there.

One thing I changed there was how quickly I walked. Before then, I walked at a swift clip. But walking that way comes across somewhere between strange and bothersome, and I had to learn to walk slowly—and that was the beginning of my encounter with time in Malaysia. In the cliché above, I learned that some things that were to me not just presuppositions but “just the way things were” were in fact not “just the way things were” but cultural assumptions and a cultural way of experiencing time, which could be experienced very differently.

Some of this is an “ex-pat” experience of time in Malaysia rather than a native Malaysian experience of Malaysian time (there are important differences between the two), but the best concise way I can describe it is that there are people in the U.S. who try and want to escape the “tyranny of the clock,” and the tyranny of the clock is frequently criticized in some circles, but in Malaysia there is much less tyranny of the clock—I was tempted to say the tyranny of the clock didn’t exist at all. People walk more slowly because walking is not something you rush through just to get it done, even if it’s important that you arrive where you’re walking to.

Every place I’ve lived I’ve taken something away. The biggest personal change I took from Malaysia had to do with time. That experience gave me something I personally would not have gained from hearing and even agreeing with complaints about the tyranny of the clock. The first domino started to topple in Malaysia, and the chain continued after I returned to the U.S.

What I tried to do on the outside was move more slowly and rebel against the clock, and on the inside to experience, or cultivate, a different time more slowly. (I was trying to be less time-bound, but interacted with time in ways I didn’t do before Malaysia.) I still tried (and still try) to meet people on time, but where I had freedom, the clock was as absent as I could make it. And it was essentially an internal experience, in a sort of classically postmodern fashion. I wore a watch, but changed its meaning. Augustine regarded there being something evil about our existence being rationed out to us, God having his whole existence in one “eternal moment”; I equated time with the tyranny of the clock and “what a clock measures”, and called timelessness a virtue. If we set aside the inconsistency between trying to “escape” time as not basically good and digging more and more deeply into time, you have something that was growing in me, with nuance, over the years since I’ve been in Malaysia.

That sets much of the stage for why I began to write this. In one sense, this is an answer to “What can time be besides what the tyranny of the clock says it is?” In another sense it is recognizing that I took something good from Malaysia, but didn’t quite hit the nail on the head: I regarded time as basically evil, something to neutralize and minimize even as I was in it, which I now repent of. That is an incorrect way of trying to articulate something good. I would like to both correct and build upon my earlier living-of-time, beginning with what might be called the flesh of the Incarnation.

The Flesh of the Incarnation

One time several friends and I were together, and one of them, who is quite strong but is silver-haired, talked about how he couldn’t put a finger on it, but he saw a sadness in the fact that the closest place for him to be buried that would satisfy certain Orthodox concerns was a couple of states over. I said that there were Nobel prizes for literature and economics, but there would never be a Nobel prize for scamming seniors out of their retirement. In that sense the Nobel prize is not just an honor for the negligible handful of physicists who receive that accolade, but every physicist. Perhaps there are a great many more honorable professions than there are Nobel prizes, but the Nobel prize doesn’t vacuously say that physics is a good thing but specifically recognizes one physicist at a time, and by implication honors those who share in the same labor.

I said that “God does not make any generic people,” and I clarified that in the Incarnation, Jesus was not a sort of “generic person” (“I went to the general store and they wouldn’t sell me anything specific!”) who sort of generically blessed the earth and in some generic fashion sympathized with those of us specific people who live in time. God has never made a specific person, and when Christ became incarnate, he became a specific man in a specific place at a specific time. As much as we are all specific people who live in a specific place at a specific time, he became a specific person who lived in a specific place at a specific time, and by doing that he honored every place and time.

“The flesh of the Incarnation,” in Orthodox understanding, is not and cannot be limited to what an atheist trying to be rigorous would consider the body of Christ. The Incarnation is a shock wave ever reaching out in different directions. One direction is that the Son of God became a Man that men might become the Sons of God. Another direction is that Christ the Savior of man or the Church can never be separated from Christ the Savior of the whole cosmos, and for people who are concerned with ecology, Christ’s shockwave cannot but say something profound from the Creation which we must care for. Sacraments and icons are part of this Transfigured matter, and the Transfiguration is a glimpse of what God is working not only for his human faithful but the entire universe he created to share in his glory.

To me at least, “the flesh of the Incarnation” is why, while the Catholic Church is willing to experiment with different philosophies and culture, because they are not part of the theological core, the Orthodox Church has preserved a far greater core of the patristic philosophy and culture. It is as if the Catholic Church, getting too much Augustine (or even worse, DesCartes), said “Spirit and matter are different things; so are theology and philosophy. We must keep the spirit of theology, but matter is separate and can be replaced.” An Orthodox reply might be “Spirit and matter are connected at the most intimate level; so are theology, philosophy and culture. We must keep the spirit of theology without separating it from the philosophy and culture which have been the flesh of the Incarnation from the Church’s origin.”

If Jesus was not a “generic person”, and I am not supposed to be a “generic person”, then the place in time he made for you is to be transfigured as the flesh of the Incarnation. What I mean by “the flesh of the Incarnation” is that Christ became Incarnate at a specific time and place, and by so doing he honored not only your flesh and mine—he is as much a son of Adam as you and me—but every time and place.

There is a major Orthodox exegesis which looks at the Gospels and says that when Pilate presented Christ to the crowd and said, “Idou ton anthropon.” (“Behold the man”, Jn 19.5), he was prophesying like Caiphas and (perhaps without knowing it) completing the Genesis story; when Christ on the cross said, “It is finished,” he announced that the work of Creation which was begun in Genesis had come to its conclusion—not, perhaps, the end of history, but the beginning of the fulness which Creation always needed but is only found at the cross. There are theologians today which answer the question “When did God create the earth?” by giving the date of the crucifixion: not that nothing existed before then, but then it was made complete. 25 March 28 AD is, in commercial terms, not the beginning of when prototypes began to be assembled and plans began to be made towards a product release, but the date that the finished product is released and thereafter available to the public. The Cross is the axis of the world, so that the Incarnation is not simply the central event in history but the defining event, not only in the time and place that we falsely consider remote which Jesus lived in, but your time and mine.

A Paradox: Historical Accuracy and Timelessness

I read a cultural commentary on the Bible cover to cover (IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, New Testament), and in one sense I’m glad I read it, but in another sense, I think I would have been better off reading the Bible cover to cover another time. Or, for that matter, creating computer software or pursuing some other interest outside of the Bible and theology.

Years earlier, I said I wished I could read a cultural commentary on the Bible, but reading it drove home a point in a Dorothy Sayers essay. The essay suggested that “period awareness”, our sharp sense of “That was then and this is now” that puts such a sharp break between the past and the present, is a product of the Enlightenment and something a great many periods do not share. When one reads the Canterbury Tales and asks what they thought about cultures, the answer is that though the stories begin in classical times there is no modern sense of “These people lived in another time so I need to try to be historically accurate and keep track of lots of historical context to take them seriously.”

What I have realized, partly in writing my first theology thesis in Biblical studies, was that a lot of cultural commentary is spiritually inert when it is not used as a tool to manipulate or neutralize the Bible for contradicting what’s in vogue today. Even when the sizeable “lobbyist” misuse of cultural context is ignored, there is a big difference between scholarly cultural and historical inquiry and a cultural sermon illustration—and it’s not that less scholarly pastors do a half-baked job of something “real” scholars do much better. Cultural sermon comments are selected from a vast body of knowledge specifically because they illuminate the text and therefore at least can enhance how the text speaks to us. “Serious”, “real” scholarship tends to bury the text’s meaning under a lot of details and result in the same kind of loss of meaning that would happen if someone asked what a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel meant and the answer was to explain try to explain everything about how the novel came to be, including how the author’s food was prepared, how the editing process was managed, and perhaps a few notes on how a Pulitzer Prize novel, after the award is received, is marketed differently from novels that haven’t received that award.

I would like to suggest that in this piece my opening historical illustration did not detail everything a “historical-critical” study would get bogged down in, and showed independence from the historical-critical version of what scholarly accuracy means precisely as it challenged a popular historical misunderstanding of alchemy.

How does this fit together? There are two things. First of all, I disagree with most scholarship’s center of gravity. “Historical-critical” scholarship, in a bad imitation of materially focused science, has a material center of gravity, and almost the whole of its rigor can be described in saying, “Look down as carefully as you can!” There is a painting which shows two philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. You can tell them apart because Plato is pointing up with one finger, and Aristotle is pointing down to material particulars with one finger. The problem with “historical-critical” scholarship in theology—and not only “historical-critical” scholarship—is that it asks Aristotle to do Plato’s work. It asks the details of history to provide theological meaning. (Which is a bit like using a microscope to view a landscape, only worse and having more kinds of problems.)

Dorothy Sayers points out that up until the Enlightenment, people producing Shakespeare plays made no more effort to have the actors dress like people did in Shakespeare’s days than Shakespeare himself felt the need to dress ancient characters in authentic Roman styles of clothing. Shakespeare’s plays were produced because they had something powerful that spoke to people, and people didn’t have this rigid historical dictate that said “If you will produce Shakespeare authentically, that means you go out of your way to acquire costumes nobody wears today.” In the Globe Theatre, people were dressed up like… well, people, whether that meant Rome or the “here and now”. And now theatre companies will be provocative or “creative” and change the setting in a Shakespeare play so that things look like some romanticization of the Wild West, or classy 20’s gangsters, or (yawn) contemporary to us, but if you exclude people who are being a bit provocative, the normal way of putting on Shakespeare is not by having people dress the way people normally dress, but by doing research and putting people in exotic clothing that clearly labels the characters as being From Another Time.

Shakespeare’s plays are produced today because they speak today, in other words because they are timeless. Being timeless doesn’t mean literally being unrelated to any specific historical context (“I went to the general store and they wouldn’t sell me anything specific!”). It means that something appears in a particular context and in that context expresses human-ness richly and fully enough that that human fingerprint speaks beyond the initial context. It means that there is a human bond that can bridge the gap of time as beautifully as two people having a friendship that simultaneously embraces and reaches beyond the differences of culture that exist between their nations. And it reflects a center of gravity that the important thing about Shakespeare is not that his English was hard to understand even hundreds of years ago, nor that people dressed a certain way that is different from any country today, but a human, spiritual center of gravity that not only speaks powerfully in the West centuries later but speaks powerfully outside the West. Shakespeare’s center of gravity is not in this or that detail, but in a human pulse.

Wind and Spirit

Let me look at something that appears to be unrelated.

The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit. The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is every one who is born of the Wind. The Spirit Spirits where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.

I can count on my fingers the number of points where I would gripe about the best English translations (if a euphemistically mistranslated Song of Songs only counts as one gripe). You don’t need to study ancient languages to know the Bible well. But there are occasional points where a language issue cuts something out of the text.

One particularly Orthodox gripe about Western translations is that they use the word “Christ” for the Son of God and “anointed” to have a range of meanings and include kings priests, objects that were considered sacred, and the whole religious community (this latter in both Old and New Testament). This is not because of what is in the original language. People may hear—I heard—that Messiah or Christ means, “Anointed One”, but the English translations I know introduce a sharper distinction than the text supports, and really drains the realization of verses that show another side of the New Testament’s language of us being called to be sons or children of God. I remember the shock I had when I was reading the (Latin) Vulgate and David, refusing to call Saul, called him “christum Domini” (“the Lord’s christ,” but the Latin, like Hebrew and Greek before it, did not distinguish i.e. “Christum” from “christum”.) I John 2:20 in the RSV says, “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know.” That obscures a dimension to the text that legitimately could be replaced by a different part of speech and clarified, “But you have been made christs by the Holy One, and you all know.” (If you don’t like changing a part of speech, you could look at texts like Sometimes you get C.S. Lewis saying “Every Christian is to become a little christ. The whole purpose of being a Christian is simply nothing else. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God.” But something of the knowledge of who we are to be in Christ is crippled when translations split up XPICTOC or its Hebrew equivalent because they are afraid to let people see that not only is Christ the Son of God and the Christian son of God, but one who is in the Christ is a christ.

That is the translators’ fault. In the text cited above (Jn 3.8), from Jesus’ discussion of flesh and Spirit/spirit, the same word in Greek (ΠΝΕΥΜΑ) carries the meaning of “Spirit”, “spirit”, and “wind” in the broader passage. I was tempted to write that ΠΝΕΥΜΑ carries that range of meanings, but that’s a little more deceptive than I’m comfortable with. It would be more accurate to say that neither “spirit” and “wind”, nor “Spirit and spirit”, represented sharply distinguished categories. In a way Jesus is punning but in a way he is making an observation about spirit/wind that does not rest on the distinction.

Let me quote the RSV for the longer passage (Jn 3.1-12):

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode’mus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicode’mus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, `You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicode’mus said to him, “How can this be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?

This is a rather big passage to try to unravel, but let me point out one thing. Jesus is dealing with a spiritual leader, and that leader’s question, “How can a man be born when he is old?” is probably not just a failure to recognize that Jesus was speaking figuratively (especially if “figuratively” means what it means today, i.e. “a consolation prize for something that is dismissed as not true, at least not literally”). Besides saying that Nicodemus might not be stupid, I might suggest that his failure to understand underscores that he was being told something that’s difficult to understand.

I’m almost tempted to write ΠNEYMA instead of spirit or Spirit because that forces a distinction that isn’t there at all in the Greek New Testament and often may not belong in good theology. With that noted, I’m going to write Spirit with the understanding that it is often not meant to be read as separated from spirit and often not distinguished.

A group of people misunderstood this and other Spirit/flesh texts to mean that we should live in the part of us that is spirit and the part of it that was flesh, and they made a number of theological errors, and unfortunately some Christians have since treated the Spirit/flesh texts as a “problem” that needs to be “handled” (and, one might infer, not quite something that was put in the Bible because it would help us). This reaction makes it harder to understand some passages that say something valuable.

We are to become all Spirit. This does not, as those Gnostics believed, mean that our bodies are evil, or that any part of God’s Creation is created evil. To become Spirit is to begin to live the life of Heaven here on earth. That doesn’t mean that what is not-God in our lives now is eliminated; it means that our whole lives are to become divine. It means that the whole cosmos has been in need of salvation, and Christ comes as Savior to his whole Creation and his whole Creation is to be drawn into him and made divine. If you buy a gift for a friend, let us say a watch, and delight in giving it, that watch is no longer merely a possession you can horde, not just something a machine spat out. It is part of your friendship with that friend and it has been drawn from the store aisle into that friendship. To use an ancient metaphor, it has been drawn into the body under the head of friendship. (And now it means something a factory could never put into it.) If you have begun to believe that things don’t boil down to a materialist’s bottom line, the watch has become more real. In the same sense, not just our “souls” or “spirits” misunderstood as opposite to our bodies, but all of us and all of our lives are to become Spirit, or in the more usual Orthodox terminology become deified or divinized.

To say that the here and now that God has placed us in is “the flesh of the Incarnation” is not intended as some kind of opposite to Spirit. That fleshis spiritual; it is the whole Creation as it becomes Spirit and as it has become Spirit.

That much is generic; it is legitimate to say about time, because it is legitimate to say about almost anything. I would now like to turn and say something more specific about time.

I don’t like to put things in terms of “synchronicity.” For those of you not familiar with synchronicity, it’s an idea that there is more to causality and time than isolated particles moving along a linear timeline, which is well and good, but this is a body missing its head, the Spirit. It’s kind of a strange way of being spiritual while not being fully connected to Spirit.

“That which is born of flesh is flesh; that which is born of Spirit is Spirit. The Spirit Spirits where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”

To live in the Spirit, and to become Spirit, is for one and the same reason the proper footing for synchronicity, synchronicity done right, and moving beyond “subjective time.” Let me talk about subjective time before talking more about synchronicity.

Subjective time is what some people have observed when people have realized that a watch is a poor indicator of how we experience time. Time flies; it can drag; but whatever watches can do, they don’t tell how fast it seems like time is moving. In other words, subjective time at least is not what a watch measures. Now this is good as an answer to the question “What can we call time besides ‘what a watch measures’?” but doesn’t go far enough. Subjective time is the subjective time of a “me, myself, and I”. It is the time of an atom, that cannot be divided further. And that limits it.

Time in the Spirit is an orchestrated, community dance. Not that the specific person is annihilated, but the specific person is transfigured. And that means that what is merely part of the private inner world of a “me, myself, and I” is in fact something vibrant in a community. Liturgical time, which I will talk about later, is one instrument of this sharing. But it is not the only one. God is the Great Choreographer, and when his Spirit orders the dance, it is everything in synchronicity and everything in subjective time and more. What was eerie, a strange occult thing people try to mine out in Jungian synchronicity becomes a pile of gold out in the open. If Jungian synchronicity is a series of opportunities to shrewdly steal food, the Dance is an invitation to join the banquet table.

Dance, then, wherever you may be, for I am the Lord of the Dance, said he. (Old Shaker hymn)

Immortalists and Transhumanists

I was reading a novel by one of my favorite authors in which some troubled characters constantly waxed eloquent about a movement, the “Immortalists”, which struck me as rather far-fetched, too preposterous a motivation for literature… until I found a group very much like them, the Transhumanist movement, on the web.

The idea of Transhumanism is that we have lived in biological bodies so far, but we are on the cusp of making progress, and “progress” is improving on the human race so that we humans (or transitional humans—”Transhumanism” abbreviates “transitional-human-ism”, and transhumanists consider themselves transhuman) can be replaced by some “posthuman” (this is supposed to be a good thing) creatures of our own devising which are always as high as if they were on crack (or higher), can run and jump like superheroes, and in general represent the fulfillment of a certain class of fantasies. (It’s like disturbing science fiction, only they’re dead serious about replacing the human race with something they consider better.) It’s the only time reading philosophy on the web has moved me to nausea, and that broad nexus of spiritual forces is something I tried to lampoon in Yonder.

Setting that obscure movement aside, it seems a lot like the progress of technology has been to achieve watered-down transhumanist goals while we live in the bodies God gave us. I read an interesting article describing how before electric lights even though there were candles most of society seemed to shut down at sundown. Now people tend to kind of sleep when it’s dark and kind of sleep when it’s light, but we have made ourselves independent of something most humans in history (let alone before history) were tightly attuned to. I can also buy pills to take to subdue pain, or slightly misuse my body and not feel as much of the natural pain. If I don’t care either about my health or breaking laws that are there for our good, there are illicit pills that could make me colossally strong: I’m moderately strong now but I could become stronger than most professional athletes. As a member of my society I have space-conquering tools—a telling name—which mean that I can move around the world and I can email and talk with people without knowing and perhaps without caring if they are next door or a thousand miles away. I can also take other pills when I get much older and defeat the normal limits age puts on lust. There are a lot of limits humans have lived with time out of mind, but we’ve discovered how to push them aside.

I heard of a dialogue where one person said, “I don’t have enough time,” and received the answer, “You have all the time there is.” In many cultures people experience time more as something that surrounds them but they’re not terribly aware of, like the air they breathe, than a sort of scant commodity one cannot have enough of. And that is a clue to something.

However much we’ve figured out mini-transhumanist ways to push back limitations, the limitation of “all the time there is” is one we can’t eliminate. We can fudge a bit with coffee or buy into some time management system, but there is a specific significance to time in our culture that wouldn’t be there in other cultures where people rise at sunrise and go to sleep at sunset. Compared to how much we can neutralize other limitations, the limitation of “all the time there is” is a limitation that resists most neutralization.

That sounds terrible, but I would draw your attention to what Transhumanism is really after. I heard one professor refer to a centuries-old Utopian vision of turning the sea into lemonade (among other things) as “une Utopie des enfants gaspillés” (“a Utopia of spoiled children”). The Transhumanist vision, which has already happened in miniature, is the ability to pursue “bigger better faster more” of what spoiled children want. What it is not is a way to grow into what a mature adult wants.

I’m not saying we should get rid of medicine, or anything like that. Medical knowledge has done some impressive things. But I would pointedly suggest that the kind of things technological advances give us give us much more what spoiled children want than what a mature adult would recognize as an aid to maturity. There are exceptions, and I would not argue any sort of straight Luddite position: I try to moderate my use of technology like I try to moderate a lot of other good things, but I am very glad for the opportunity to live in an age where webpages are possible, and to have gotten in at a good time. But the “all the time there is” limitation is in fact the kind of boundary that helps mature adults grow more mature, and if we are willing to take it there is an occasion for maturity because we can’t take a pill to have all the time we want.

From the Fifth Gospel to Liturgical Time

The Gospel According to Thomas isn’t the Fifth Gospel. (At least, in ancient times when Christians said “the Fifth Gospel” they didn’t mean the Gospel According to Thomas. No comments from the peanut gallery about the Gospel According to Thomas being the Fifth Bird Cage Liner.)

If a couple of people meet, become acquainted, become friends, start dating, become engaged, and get married, when does the marriage begin? In one sense, the wedding is a formal threshold: before then they aren’t married, afterwards they are. But in another sense the engagement becomes part of the marriage, as does the courtship, the friendship, the acquaintance, even the first meeting and possibly things in their lives that they would say prepared them for the meeting. The marriage moves forward from the wedding date but it also reaches backwards and creates something in the past. What may have been an improbable or forgettable first meeting is drawn into the marriage; the same thing is going on as with the watch which becomes not simply matter but part of a friendship.

John Behr has provocatively suggested that the worst thing that has happened to Christianity in the past 2000 years has been the canonization of the New Testament so it is placed as Scripture alongside the Old Testament, and becomes the second and final volume in a series. What he means by that may not be obvious.

The relationship between the Old and New Testament is misunderstood somewhat if the New Testament is simply the final chapter of the Old Testament. It would be better, if still imperfect, to say that the New Testament is Cliff’s Notes on the Old Testament, or the Old Testament was a rich computer game and the New Testament was the strategy guide that we need to unlock it’s secrets. It is no accident that the first people we know of to put the New Testament alongside the Old Testament, and make commentaries on both Testaments, were Gnostics who tried to unlock the New Testament when orthodox Christians let the New Testament unlock the Old.

Quick—which Christ-centered Gospel did Handel use in the Messiah to tell of the Messiah or Christ? The answer is the Fifth Gospel: Isaiah. The passages cited in the Messiah are not a few prophetic exceptions to a non-Christ-related Old Testament; they are part of the Old Testament unlocked, and that same reading is how the earliest Christians read the Old Testament Scriptures.

Now it was Mary Mag’dalene and Jo-an’na and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emma’us, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them.

But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad.

Then one of them, named Cle’opas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”

And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.

They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”

There’s a lot going on here; I’m not going to address why Mary Magdalene was known as the Apostle to the Apostles, but I would suggest that instead of saying today what a feminist would be tempted to say, that the men were sexist and wouldn’t believe a woman when she bore the glad tidings, there was a veil over their minds, much like Paul describes in II Cor 3. If a woman’s witness did not suffice, Jesus standing with them in person and talking with them still had no effect until the very end. And there is something going on here with a number of resonances in our lives. They couldn’t see Christ in the Scriptures (which were then the Old Testament, because the Gospels and Epistles had never been written), and they couldn’t see Christ appearing before them, even literally. And that is not because they are imperceptive and we are perceptive. The story is a crystallization of how we often meet Christ.

What is the point of all this? The most immediate reason is not to say that the Bible is 80% documents produced by Judaism before Christianity came around and 20% Christian documents, but transformed, transmuted if you will, into 100% Christian documents. When the book of Psalms opens with, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the council of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of cynics,” that refers first and foremost to Christ. I myself have not gotten very far in this way of reading the Scriptures, but I hope to, and I believe it will pay rich dividends.

And there is something going on here that is going on in when a marriage reaches backwards, or a watch becomes part of a friendship. It is connected with what is called “recapitulation”, which I think is an unfortunate technical theological term because the metaphor comes across as in “Ok, let me try and recap what we’ve said so far,” which is a wishy-washy metaphor for something deep. Orthodox talk about deification, and for us to be deified is a specific example of recapitulation in Christ. Recapitulation means “re-heading”, and while in a sense very consistent with how recapitulation works, I’ve somewhat indistinguishably talked about how we can be Recapitulated or Re-headed in Christ, becoming body to his head and connected in the most intimate way, thereby becoming Christ (i.e. Recapitulation with a big ‘R’), and how something can become part of the body of something that can itself be recapitulated in Christ (recapitulation with only a little ‘R’). Perhaps that sentence should be dragged out into the street and shot, but when I talked about the gift of a watch becoming part of a friendship, the head of its reheading is something created, but both the watch and the friendship can be Recapitulated in Christ with the re-heading of the watch to be part of the friendship is itself part of what is Recapitulated in Christ, i.e. which is not merely brought under a head but connected to Christ as its head.

Let’s move on to clearer language and a clearer example—one that has to do with our time. The head of the whole body of time we live is our time in worship, liturgical time. This both that there is a liturgical rhythm of day, week, and year, with different practices that help us connect with the different liturgical rhythms (by the way, the first major piece of advice my spiritual father gave me was to take 5-10 years to step into the liturgical rhythm), but that’s not all. It means that our time in worshsip, which is not just time in a funnily decorated room with our particular club, sets the pace for life. It means that what is crystallized and visible in worship is perhaps hidden but if anything more powerfully manifest in a whole life of worship. It means that not just going to Church but working and playing are themselves worship, and they fulfill worship. It means, and I write this on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, that our worship is hollow and empty when we sing hymns to God on Sunday and then turn away in icy silence when someone asks our help—for it is not that someone we have icily turned away from, but Christ (see Matt 25:31-46). In the discourse at the Last Supper, Christ did not say that all would “know you are my disciples by this, that you have the most beautiful services,” but that all would “know you are my disciples by this, that you love one another.” (Jn 13.35) That is something that happens outside of Church first and foremost. Liturgical time is the basis for time in our lives.

Liturgical time is (or at least should be) the head of time in a life of worship (if “head” is used in the sense of “recapitulation” or “re-heading”), but it is not its own head. The head of time in worship is eternity in Heaven, and that means that just as life is the concrete manifestation of worship, in time but in other matters as well, but liturgical time is not people gathered in a room for an interval but people transported to Heaven in what is not exactly a time machine, or not merely a time machine, but an “eternity machine”. The head of eternity in Heaven is the Eternal One whose glory shines through Heaven on earth.

What does this concretely mean for our experience of time? It means much the same as whether the material world was created good by God or evil by someone lesser. Pains and physical pleasures, to give a superficial example, will be there whether we believe the material world is good or evil. But it makes a difference whether you believe the sweetness of honey is a touch of love from God or a hatefully baited barb from Satan. Now part of really coming alive is being more than pleasure and pain and letting go of pleasures that they may be recapitulated or re-headed and drawn into what is Spirit. But even then, the Christian ascetic who lets go of a good is very different from a Gnostic ascetic who hatefully rejects it as evil. Pleasures and even pains, and joys and sorrows, are fuller depending on their basis.

Augustine has been accused of inadequate conversion—maybe he became Christian, but he continued being too much of a Manichee. I am sympathetic to that view, and it makes good sense of Augustine’s sense that there is something violent to us about being in time, with our being stingily rationed out to us, infinitesimal bit by bit (some have said the present “barely exists” because it is an instantaneous boundary where the future rushes into the past without stopping to rest), while God has its being all at once. I was sympathetic to that view until not long ago; I thought of time as an evil thing we endure to get to the good of eternity—which is the wrong way of putting it.

Time is a moving image of eternity and is recapitulated in Christ. We miss something fundamental if we simply say that it is less than eternity; it participates in the glory. Furthermore, there is a case to be made that we misunderstand eternity if it is “frozen time” to us, if it is an instant in time which is prolonged, or even worse, is deprived of a moving timeline. Whatever eternity is, that can’t be it. That is something fundamentally less than the time in which we grow and learn and breathe. Eternal life, which begins in this world, is God’s own life, greater than created being but something that projects its glory into time. I once asked a friend if the difference between Maximus Confessor and Plato on Ideas was that for Plato there was one Idea that covered a bunch of material shadows (what we would think of as “real”, but the Ideas were more real), and he waved that aside without really contradicting me. He said that the Ideas, or ΛΟΓΟΙ (logoi), were static in Plato but dynamic in Maximus Confessor.Logoi are ideas loved in the heart of God from all eternity, and you and I only exist because we each have a logos in the heart of God which is what we are trying to become. And I don’t know how to reconcile what I know of dynamism with being outside of time, but eternity is not the deprivation of time, but something more time-like than time itself. Time becomes eternal when it is recapitulated in Christ.

Kairos and Chronos

Bishop K.T. Ware began one lecture/tape by saying that at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, there is a line that is very easy to overlook: the deacon tells the bishop or his deputy the priest, “It’s time to get started.” Except that he doesn’t say, “It’s time to get started,” but “It is time for the Lord to act.”

He pointed out both that the liturgy is the Lord’s work, even if both priest and faithful must participate for it to be valid (he said that the pop etymology of liturgy as “lit-urgy”, “the people’s work”, may be bad etymology but it’s good theology). But another point tightly tied to it is the exact Greek word that is translated “time.”

There are two words that are both translated time, but their meanings are very different. Translating them both as time is like translating both genuine concern and hypocritical flattery as “politeness” because you are translating into a language that doesn’t show the distinction. Perhaps the translators are not to be blamed, but there is something important going on in the original text that is flattened out in English. And when the deacon says “It’s time to get started,” it does not mean “My watch says 9:00 and that’s when people expect us to start,” but “This is the decisive moment.” In the Gospels, when Jesus’ own brothers and sisters failed to grasp who he was just as completely as the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he tells them, “My kairos has not yet come, but your kairos is always here.” (Jn 7.6).

Orthodox do not have any kind of monopoly on this distinction, but we do have a distinction between what is called “chronos” and what is called “kairos.” Chronos is ordinary if we take a harsh meaning to the word, instead of “everything is as it should be”. Chronos at its worst is watching the clock while drudgery goes on and on. If chronos is meaningless time, kairos is meaningful time, dancing the Great Dance at a decisive moment. It is putting the case too strongly to say that the West is all about chronos and Eastern Christianity is all about kairos, but I do not believe it is putting the case too strongly to say that East and West place chronos and kairos differently, and kairos is less the air people breathe in the West than it should be.

I don’t think that chronos needs as much explanation in the West; chronos is what a clock measures; the highbrow word for a stopwatch is “chronometer” and not “kairometer”. The distinction between kairos and chronos is somewhat like the distinction between I-Thou and I-It relationship. But let me give “ingredients” to kairos, as if it were something cooked up in a recipe.

  • Chronos.
  • Eternity.
  • Appointed time.
  • Rhythmic circular time with interlocking wheels.
  • Linear unfolding time.
  • Moments when you are absorbed in what you are doing.
  • Decisive moments when something is possible that was impossible a moment before and will be impossible a moment later.
  • Dancing the serendipitous Great Dance.
  • Total presence.

But kairos is not something cooked up in a recipe; chronos may be achievable that way, but kairos is a graced gift of God.

We Might All Be Alcoholics

A recovering alcoholic will tell you that alcoholism is Hell on earth. He would say that it is the worst suffering on earth, or that it is the kind of thing you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

And the point that healing and restoration begins is exquisitely painful. An alcoholic has a massive screen of denial that defeats reasoning. The only semi-effective way to defeat that denial is by a massive dose of even more painful reality that can break down that screen, some of the time. (An intervention.)

If alcoholism is Hell, why don’t alcoholics step out of it? Some people in much less pain find out what they need to do to stop the pain and leave. They take off a pair of shoes that is too tight, or ask for an ambulance to treat their broken arm (and I believe someone who’s been through both experiences would say that alcoholism is a much deeper kind of pain than a broken arm).

Surely alcoholics must have a sense that something is wrong—and that’s what they’re trying to evade. That’s what half an alcoholic’s energy goes into evading, because stopping and saying “I’m an alcoholic.” is the greatest terror an alcoholic can jump into. It may be a greater fear than the fear of death—or it is the fear of the death, a step into where nothing is guaranteed.

And that is where to become Orthodox might as well be recognizing you are an alcoholic. Not, perhaps, that every Orthodox has a problem with alcohol, but we all have a problem, a spiritual disease called sin that is not a crime, but is infinitely worse than mere criminality. And the experience an alcoholic says saying, “My name’s Ashley, and I’m an alcoholic,” for the first time, is foundational to Orthodox religion. “Here is trustworthy saying that deserves acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.”

There is a book, I have been told, among alcoholics called Not-God, because part of dealing with the cancer of alcoholism, as difficult as recognizing a terrible problem with alcohol, is recognizing that you have been trying to be God and not only are you not God, but your playing God has caused almost untold troubles.

Repentance is the most terrifying experience an Orthodox or an alcoholic can experience because when God really confronts you, he doesn’t just say “Give me a little bit.” He says, “Give me everything,” and demands an unconditional surrender that you write a blank check. This is as terrifying as the fear of death—or perhaps it is the fear of death, because everything we are holding dear, and especially the one thing we hold most dear, must be absolutely surrendered to—the Great Physician never tells us what, because then it would not be the surrender we need. We are simply told, “Write a blank check to me. Now.”

How does this square with becoming a little Christ?

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The two paragraphs, as I have broken up Phil 2:1-11 (RSV), are complementary. What the last paragraph says is that the equal Son of God emptied himself and kept on emptying himself further and suffering further until there is nothing left to give. And this is not a sinner, a mere creature, but the spotless and sinless Son of God showing what it means to be divine. It is not in Heaven that Christ shows the full force of divinity, but by emptying himself, willingly, to death on a cross and a descent into the realm of the dead. That is the moment when death itself began to work backwards—and humbling and emptying ourselves before God is the sigil of being exalted and filled with God’s goodness. But the other side of the coin is that if we think we can become divine, or even be human, while not being emptied, we are asking to be above Christ and expecting to have something that is utterly incoherent.

When we recognize that we are not God, then we become christs. When we empty ourselves, and let go of that one thing we are most afraid of giving to God, then we discover, along with the recovering alcoholic, that what we were most afraid to give up was a piece of Hell. We discover, with the alcoholic, that what we were fighting God about, and offering him consolation prizes in place of, was not something God needed, but something we needed to be freed from.

This emptying, this blank check and unconditional surrender, is what makes divinization possible. I was tempted in writing this to say that it is the ultimate kairos, but that’s exaggerating: the ultimate kairos is the Eucharist, but if we refuse this kairos, we befoul what we could experience in the Eucharist. If we are talking about a decisive moment that is not our saying “I want to make myself holier” so much as us hearing God say “You need to listen to me NOW,” then however painful it may be it is a step into kairos and a step further into kairos. And only after the surrender do we discover that what we were fighting against was an opportunity to step one step further into Heaven.

Repentance is appointed time. Repentance is the decisive moment, one we enter into again. Repentance is simultaneously death and transfiguration, the death that is transfiguration and the transfiguration that recapitulates death. Repentance is eternity breaking into time. Repentance is one eternal moment, and the moment we cycle back to, and the steps of climbing into Heaven. Repentance is being pulled out of the mud and painfully scrubbed clean. Repentance is fighting your way into the Great Peace. Repentance is the moment when we step out of unreality and unreal time into reality and the deepest time. Repentance is not the only moment in kairos, but it is among the most powerful and the most deeply transforming, decisive moments that appointed kairos has to offer.

Miscellanea

I do not have time to write, and perhaps you do not have time to read, separate sections about some things I will briefly summarize:

  • Life neither begins at 18 nor ends at 30. Every age is to be part of a kaleidoscope. Contrary to popular opinion in America, not only is it not a sin to grow old, but each age has its own beauty, like the seasons in turn and like the colors in a kaleidoscope. And that is why I do not guiltily talk about having “hit 30” any more than I would guiltily talk about having “hit 18” or “hit 5”, because in the end feeling guilty about approaching a ripe age is as strange as feeling guilty about being born: not that there is anything wrong with being a child in the womb, but the purpose of that special age is not to remain perennially in the womb but to grow in maturity and stature until our life is complete and God, who has numbered the hairs on our heads and without whom not even a sparrow can die, come to the thing we fear in age and discover that this, “death”, is not the end of a Christian’s life but the portal to the fulness of Heaven where we will see in full what we can now merely glimpse.
  • When we reach Heaven or Hell, they will have reached back so completely that our whole lives will have been the beginning of Heaven or the beginning of Hell.
  • People make a dichotomy between linear and cyclical time. The two can be combined in spiral (or maybe helical) time, and the movement of time forwards in growth combined with the liturgical cycles makes a rhythmic but never-repeating helix or spiral. (If that is embedded in what Maximus Confessor said about linear, circular, and spiral motion.)
  • One step away from saying that time is a line is saying that time is a pole on which a living vine grows, making a richer kind of connection than a materialist would see. That is a little bit of why we are contemporaries of Christ.

The Horn of Joy

…Sandy called after [Meg], “And also in 1865 Rudyard Kipling was born, and Verlaine wrote Poèmes saturniens, and John Stuart Mill wrote Auguste Comte and Positivism, and Purdue, Cornell, and the universities of Maine were founded.”

She waved back at him, then paused as he continued, “And Matthew Maddox’s first novel, Once More United, was published.”

She turned back, asking in a carefully controlled voice, “Maddox? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that author.”

“You stuck to math in school.”

“Yeah, Calvin always helped me with my English papers. Did this Matthew Maddox write anything else?”

Sandy flipped through the pages. “Let’s see. Nothing in 1866, 1867. 1868, here we are, The Horn of Joy.”

“Oh, that,” Dennys said. “I remember him now. I had to take a lit course my sophomore year in college, and I took nineteenth-century American literature. We read that, Matthew Maddox’s second and last book, The Horn of Joy. My prof said if he hadn’t died he’d have been right up there with Hawthorne and James. It was a strange book, passionately anti-war, I remember, and it went way back into the past, and there was some weird theory of the future influencing the past—not my kind of book at all.” (Madeleine l’Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet.)

Madeleine l’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet immediately follows my favorite children’s book, A Wind in the Door. I wished I could visit Patagonia, and tried to find a book she mentions in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art as seminal to the Welsh legend in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I also looked for The Horn of Joy and was disappointed, if not necessarily surprised, to learn that this was the one fictional addition to an otherwise historical list.

It would be not only strange but presumptuous to suggest that this piece I am writing is what she was referring to. Perhaps it is presumptuous to use that title, although it may seem less presumptuous if one understands how special and even formative Madeleine l’Engle’s work has been to me. But what does not seem strange to suggest is that this work may affect the meaning of A Swiftly Tilting Planet. That would only be determined by other people’s judgment and is not my call to make, but I don’t think Madeleine l’Engle would be offended if someone said that this enhanced the value of her work, or added another layer to what she said about time. Her own words not only in that work but in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art about how a work can be enhanced by future insights would suggest the possible. It is quite possible that my work is not good enough or not relevant enough to serve as such a key, but the suggestion is not that strange to make.

But let us move on to one closing remark.

Extraordinary and Utterly Ordinary

The Enlightenment has left us with a lot of wreckage, and one of this is great difficulty seeing what causality could be besides “one domino mechanically toppling others.”

Aristotle listed four causes: the material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause. The material and formal cause are interesting to me as something the Enlightenment would not think to include in causality: Aristotle’s Physics portrays the bronze in a statue as a material cause to the statue. If we listen to the hint, this could suggest that causality for Aristotle is something besides just dominoes falling. He does deal with mechanical, domino-like causation when he describes the efficient cause, but I remember being taken with the “final cause”, the goal something is progressing towards, because I thought it was domino causation that had the effect before the cause.

The best response I can give now to what I believed then was, “Um, kind of.” Aristotle’s four causes address a broader and more human kind of causation that looks at questions like why something happened and not just how it was produced. It is in fact an utterly ordinary way of looking at things. It’s not the only serious way of describing causality (my favorite physics teacher said in class, “If Aristotle said it, it was wrong,” and I think he was right about much more than physics), but it’s one kind of richer view. And if you think it’s something exotic, you misunderstand it. It is an utterly ordinary, even commonsense way of looking at why things happen.

And an Aristotle’s-four-causes kind of time is better than an Enlightenment-domino-causation kind of time, for a number of reasons. The best essay about time, which I cannot write, would encompass the better parts of what I have said above while remaining “normal” even when it underscored something extraordinary. Or at least would do better at that than I have.

Orthodoxy is not something absolutely unique; I have said things here which I hope resonate with some sense of home whether or not you are Orthodox. When I moved from being an Evangelical to becoming Orthodox, I did not move from absolute error into absolute truth but from something partial to its full expression. (And there are other clarifications I haven’t made, like how much of this essay is owed to Irenaeus and to John Behr helping Irenaeus come alive.) But let me close.

In Orthodoxy, here and now, there is an ordinary way to do what alchemy aimed at: be transfigured in a transfiguration that embraces the material world—and, as we have seen, time. Time is to be transmuted, or rather transfigured, until it becomes eternity.

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

The “natural cycle” liturgical clock

Now

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

The Watch

CJSH.name/watch

The Steel Orb
Read it on Kindle for $3!

Metacult: So, Pater, I was thinking—wait a minute; I hear someone scratching at the door.

Janra: Hi, Vespucci. How are you?

Vespucci: Doing well. Take a seat.

Janra: Where?

Vespucci: Anywhere.

Janra: Anywhere?

Vespucci: Anywhere…

Off! Off! Get off my lap! Only my wife is allowed to sit there. You know that. Anyways, the Radical Gadgets catalogue came in today…

Janra: By the way, I phoned the company today. I think I can get some World War II vintage mechanical—

Vespucci: Don’t even think about it. If you—

Pater: Easy, brothers. As you were saying?

Vespucci: As I was saying… Radical Gadgets has the most interesting tools. The cover product this month was an e-mail filtering package that uses Bayesian filtering techniques to block unwanted messages.

Janra: That’s original! I checked Freshmeat today, and I think they only have half a dozen well-known anti-spam packages, not counting lesser products and tools that have just been released. Does Radical Gadgets always find products this original?

Vespucci: But it is original. And it’s not an anti-spam package. It has nothing to do with spam.

Pater: Huh?

Vespucci: Let me explain. You know that Bayesian filtering looks at a message and uses statistics to guess what category it belongs to, right?

Pater: Yes; go on.

Vespucci: But that will work whether you use it for incoming or outgoing e-mails. Most people use the filtering techniques on incoming e-mails, to try and reduce the fire hose of spam coming in. But you don’t have to stop there. You can also filter outgoing e-mails.

Pater: Why would I want to filter the e-mails I send out?

Vespucci: You’ve never sent a flame? Come on; I remember a couple of times that you flamed me over something minor, and sent a very embarrassed apology when I waited two weeks and simply sent it back, and asked you to read it aloud, and tell me whether that’s what you want me to hear from you. And it’s not just you. When you’re talking with a person face to face, there are two eyes looking at you and reminding you that a person hears every cutting word you say. That doesn’t stop conflicts, but it does mitigate some of the abrasive things we’re tempted to say. On a computer, it seems like there’s just a keyboard and pixels—no person you can actually hurt. So people hit harder, and you have incredible flamewars, often between people who conduct themselves like responsible adults when they’re talking to someone face to face. It’s possible to learn discipline, of course, and conduct yourself maturely, but all too many people don’t realise there’s a discipline you have to learn even if you’re mature.

And so instead of just assuming that the only bad e-mails are offensive messages from people who’ve never seen you, telling you that part of your body isn’t big enough and you need to buy their snake oil, or that you’re impotent, or that you’re not man enough for a relationship with a real woman and will have to content yourself with pixels on a screen—apart from these, there are offensive messages that you send out and then wish you could somehow take back and delete.

And this program does just that. Once you’ve trained it on your sent mail folder, it watches messages you send out, and uses the same Bayesian technology that’s so powerful in identifying spam, and identifies when you’re writing something you’ll regret later. Then it saves it, quarantining it in a separate folder until you come to your senses and delete it.

Pater: That’s… um, I’m going to go to their computer and order it from their website. Please excuse me for a moment. I really need to—

Metacult: Sit down, Pater. You’re not going to e-mail out any flames while we’re here talking.

Vespucci: Hmm… um, I hadn’t meant to have a big discussion about the anti-flame software. There were several things that caught my attention, but what caught my eye most was a watch that keeps exceptionally accurate time.

Pater: Huh? Who would need a more accurate way to keep time? Most cultures find an hour to be a short time, and a cheap digital watch keeps more accurate time than a $5000 Rolex, because our watches are too accurate already. It would be awfully hard to explain our to-the-second accuracy to an aboriginal—I can’t see why, besides pride that wants a possession to boast about, someone would benefit from a more accurate watch.

Vespucci: Oh, but there is benefit—worth paying $5,000 for a digital watch. Even worth having to change the batteries too often.

Pater: How?

Vespucci: The Watch doesn’t just have an oscillating quartz crystal; it has an array of sensors in the watchband that measure skin temperature and conductivity, pulse, even a clever estimate of blood pressure, and feeds all of these into an embedded chip with some extraordinarily clever software.

This software takes these data and gets a picture of the person’s emotional state. You know how time flies when you’re having fun?

Pater: Didn’t Einstein explain his theory of relativity by saying, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute—and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”

Vespucci: Um… that has nothing to do with the theory of relativity, and I’m not interested in discussing Einstein’s spacetime now. If Einstein said that, he probably had a merry twinkle in his eye. But…

Come to think about it, that is a pretty good picture. The Watch estimates your emotional state for one purpose: it keeps track of how long time seems to be passing. It has a normal timer that can count forty minutes until dinnertime, but it can also tell you how long the wait will feel like. And that’s something no other watch can do.

Metacult: So it deals with subjective time? I read a book once which was trying to argue that time could be understood as something besides the number a machine has counted to. It talked about how a small child will ask Mom how long she’s leaving for, and Mom’s answer—she’s really trying to avoid feeling guilty about leaving the child alone—are singularly unhelpful for a child trying to figure out how much perceived time must be endured before Mom returns.

Vespucci: Yes, and the minute-hour quote captures that. All watches tell what time it is from a machine’s perspective. This is the only watch that tells time from a human perspective.

Metacult: Wonderful. What does it take into account besides clock ticks and the person’s emotional state?

Vespucci: Huh? What else contributes to our experience of time besides the physical time and our psychological state?

Pater: Your question betrays nominalism. The way you’ve framed things shuts out the true answer.

Vespucci: We’re entering the third millenium; I don’t see why you’re dragging in a controversy from medieval times.

Janra: Mmmph. Excuse me. I think I need a glass of water.

Metacult: Sit down, Janra. And don’t look at me like that. I’m going let you answer that.

Janra: Certainly. Here are the steps to hunt a bear: First, fire your gun. Second, aim your gun. Third, locate a bear. Fourth, buy a gun.

Metacult: Try again.

Janra: Clothing to wear in winter: a heavy coat, then on top of that a good sweater or two, then two shirts and two pair of pants, then underwear, with woolen socks over your boots.

Metacult: Please be serious.

Janra: I am being serious.

Metacult: Then be mundane.

Janra: Oh. That’s another matter entirely.

Your entire approach is backwards and inside-out, as backwards as trying to shoot a bear before you have a gun, and as inside-out as wearing your anorak next to your skin.

How? Let me respond to your second comment. If I said, in the most reverent of tones, “We’re standing at the forty-second latitude and eighty-seventh longitude,” you’d think I was making a mountain out of a molehill: yes, we’re at a particular latitude and longitude, but what does that have to do with the price of eggs in China? It’s true, but what does that have to do with anything we’re discussing? Yet people say, “We’re entering the third millenium” as if it is this great statement of far-reaching consequences, the sort of thing that should settle a matter. As you yourself did.

People in the Middle Ages often did not know what year it was, or even what century, any more than people today know what latitude and longitude we’re at—quick—do you know what latitude and longitude you’re at? The reason is that we think the past is under a glass bell, where we humans are living our lives while those odd and quaint creatures under the bell are not the same as us. And it doesn’t need to be that way. For a long time after Shakespeare’s death, when people put on Shakespeare, they didn’t try to reconstruct period accurate costumes. Why? Did they not know that Shakespeare lived long before them? Perhaps, but they also recognised that Shakespeare was a human who worked with human problems and wrote human drama, and that the reason his plays are worth performing is not because they’re old but because they’re timelessly human. And we forget this when we take great care to dress actors in funny costumes that tell people that this is something quaint from long ago and far away.

You know that many of your physical possessions that make up the physical world come from far away: when you buy something at Target, and make no effort to find treasures from faroff land, you buy a lamp that was made in China or underpants that were made in Mexico. You know that the whole world is interconnected, so even if you don’t go hunting off for exotic imports, a great many of the things you buy were made far away.

You can as much live without ideas from bygone ages as you can live in a house you built with your own hands—or for that matter, be born in a house you built with your own hands. That isn’t how things work. Nominalism is one of innumerable ideas that has survived, just as the custom of using pots and pans has survived.

Vespucci: If it’s one of innumerable ideas, why pay it that much attention?

Janra: Because I can count on my fingers the number of conceptual revolutions that are more important today than nominalism. Trying to understand how people think today without looking at nominalism is like trying to look at a summer meadow without seeing plants. There are other important ideas, but this one makes the short list.

Vespucci: Then why have I not heard more about nominalism, when I hear people talking about postmodernism, for instance, or modernism? And what is nominalism to begin with?

Janra: For the same reason a fish won’t tell you about water. Modernism and postmodernism are both nominalism writ large; nominalism is a seed, whose flower is modernism, and whose fruit is postmodernism.

Vespucci: Hmm. I hear the distinct accent of a person laboring in the prison of one idea.

Janra: Bear with me. Nominalism may be seen as the lock on a prison: we need to pay close attention to the lock to see if there’s any way to open it. Then, if we can get out, let us see if there are not many more ideas available after we have paid proper attention to nominalism.

Now what is nominalism? In a sentence, nominalism says, “There’s nothing out there; it’s all in your head.” A nominalist doesn’t literally mean “nothing” is outside our heads; you can’t put on a watch and say, “I refute nominalism thus.”

Vespucci: But it was a non sequitur when—

Janra: Yes, I know, I know. Another tangent. But let’s forget about saying that matter is just in people’s heads and not something external to mind. As I was saying, you can’t put on a watch and say, “I refute nominalism thus.” But if we really follow nominalist logic, you can’t put on a watch. You can have nerve impulses that result in the motion of some elementary particles, but a watch is a tool-to-tell-time-which-you-wear-on-your-wrist, and a tool-to-tell-time-which-you-wear-on-your-wrist does not and cannot exist in nature. All the meaning that makes those atoms a watch can only exist in minds, and for the same reason what-we-call-a-watch can’t have the time displayed on its face. It can have elementary particles that are placed like so and interact with light just so, but the meaning that can read a time in that configuration isn’t at all in the atoms themselves; it’s in your head. This is clarified in a distinction between “brute fact” and “social reality:” brute fact is what exists outside of minds and social reality can only exist in minds, and almost anything humans value consists of a small amount of brute fact and a large portion of social reality—larger than most people would guess. Everything is either brute fact or social reality.

Pater: Is the boundary between brute fact and social reality a brute fact or a social reality?

Metacult: Shut up.

Janra: Imagine three umpires at a baseball game: the first says, “I calls ’em as they are.” The second says, “I calls ’em as I sees them.” But the third says, “Some’s strikes, and some’s balls, but they ain’t nothing ’til I calls ’em.”

With apologies to Kronecker, God created cold matter. All else is the work of man.

Pater: Whoa. Is the basic faculty that lets man create social reality derived from brute fact or social reality?

Janra: Shut up.

Now I have been showing what happens when you push nominalism a good deal further than non-scholars are likely to do. But in fact nominalism has been seeping into our consciousness for centuries, so that we might not find the claim that nature is beautiful to be a mistake, but we see with nominalist eyes and hear with nominalist ears. Most of people across most of time have understood and experienced symbols very different from how a nominalist would.

If we assume that matter is basically something cold and dead, devoid of spiritual properties, then of course a symbol can only exist in the mind, a mental connection between two things that are not connected by nature. Any similarity is in the eye of the beholder, or if not that, is at least a coincidence that isn’t grounded on anything deeper. There is no organic connection.

But if we look at how people have understood symbols, their understanding has to do with a view of reality where a great many things are real, where a symbol bespeaks a real and spiritual connection. The crowning jewel of this understanding of symbol was the claim that man is the image of God. When Christians talked about man being the image of God, they were not talking about what we would understand by a photograph or a painting, where pigments are arranged in such a way that an observer can tell they were meant to look like God; they meant a real and organic connection that went far beyond a mere representation of God; they meant that we were what you would think a kind of magical statue which not only represented God, but embodied his actual presence: God’s presence operates in us in a real way, and every breath we breathe is the breath of God.

Now the reason we began discussing nominalism was that you said something, and I said, “That question betrays nominalism.” Do you remember what you said?

Vespucci: No.

Janra: We were discussing what I consider to be a very interesting watch, and you asked what could contribute to our experience of time besides what an ordinary watch tells, and our emotional state.

That question betrays nominalism. You were in essence asking what could interest us in time besides the brute fact of what most watches tell, and the social, or at least mental, reality of our emotional state.

But there’s a world of other things out there.

Vespucci: But what else is there?

Metacult: Hmm. I think we need to work a bit harder to help you look at what you believe. You’ve been keeping up on superstring theory, right?

Vespucci: Yes. I loved the explanations I could get of relativity, and I love how scientists can turn our commonsense notions upside down.

Metacult: Do you know any classical, Newtonian physics?

Vespucci: I did in high school. I’ve forgotten most of it now, but I don’t remember it being nearly as exciting: a lot of math to go through to get at common sense.

Metacult: May I instead suggest that your common sense is a nonmathematical version of Newtonian physics?

Newton’s physics was big on grids: everything was placed on a grid of absolute space, and absolute time. And it connected rooms the wrong way: different places are on the same meaningless grid, but they’re not connected besides the grid.

To the medieval mind, it wasn’t so. Each space was its own little world as far as Newton was concerned. But they were connected spiritually. There is an icon of two saints from different centuries talking, and the medieval mind was comfortable with this because it saw things other than “but they’re from other parts of the spacetime grid!”

Vespucci: But what does this have to do with time? It seems to me you’re going off on a tangent.

Metacult: Ok, back to time. Time isn’t just a grid adorned by emotions. It’s spiritually connected. You yourself are not self-contained.

Pater: And there’s liturgical time. One of the things that shocked me was that people seem to have no time. It helped me to appreciate the colorful time I had breathed. I was stunned when people experienced time as torture. I experienced it as a sacrament, a channel of God’s grace.

From other conversations, I get the impression that the liturgical year isn’t real to you: one source of holidays among others. But it is real: interlocking cycles of day, week, year, so that you are breathing in this rhythm and are given something to live in each moment. Sometimes you’re feasting; sometimes you’re fasting; often you’re given something to meditate on.

Vespucci: So the watch would do a more complete job if its little computer were programmed to keep track of the liturgical cycles? I think the engineers could do that.

Pater: Errmmmmm…

Metacult: I think what he means, but cannot articulate, is that what a computer could make of the liturgical cycles are not the place that makes liturgical time. They are more of a doorway into the place, into a room that the Spirit blows. If the watch were to keep track of that, it would have to have, not more sophisticated computer programming, but something else altogether, something sensitive to spiritual realities.

Pater: And that’s just what a scientific computer, even a very small one, cannot do. Science works on nominalism. It’s brought a lot of good stuff, but it can’t perceive or work with spiritual qualities, any more than a pair of binoculars will improve your hearing. And that’s fine when you recognise that spiritual qualities are left out, but the temptation is to say, “Because science is so powerful, it sees everything that’s real.” And a watch designed by scientific engineering can do scientific things, but if it were to try and see liturgical time from the inside, it would inevitably kill what breathes in it.

Janra: So if we were to imagine a watch that keeps track of time, true time, it would need not only sensors and a miniature computer, and a time-keeping quartz crystal, but something attuned to spiritual realities.

Pater: If that were possible. In my culture, we never wear watches. The best watch would be no watch, or perhaps a rock on a wristband, where if you go to it looking for trivia, it doesn’t give what you’re looking for—and in so doing, reminds you of something important, that you need to look elsewhere.

Janra: What about a watch that had a rock alongside the things we’ve just described?

Pater: Ermmm…

Janra: And what would men’s and women’s models look like? Would the rocks be respectively rough and smooth?

Metacult: Actually, men’s and women’s experience of time differs significantly, so if you had a watch with a truer way of telling time, there would be a much bigger difference than men’s watches being heftier and women’s watches being slender.

Janra: How?

Metacult: I remember one time when you were talking with a new mother, and whenever the baby needed care, you stopped talking so that Mom could pay attention to her new son. It was a thoughtful gesture, and one that wasn’t needed.

Janra: Why not? I’d have wanted to be allowed to give the child my full attention.

Metacult: I know. So would most good men. A man’s particular strength is to devote his full attention to a task. A woman’s particular strength is to lightly balance several tasks, giving genuine attention to each. That mother was perfectly able to give attention to her son and listen to you at the same time. That’s why she looked at you, slightly puzzled and with an attention that says, “I’m listening,” when you stopped talking.

And there are other differences as well. If there is a situation that colors a man’s understanding of time, it is a brief period of intense pressure. A woman’s understanding of time more has the hue of a longer period that requires sustained attention. And even that misses something. The difference between a man’s experience of time and a woman’s is not so much like a difference between numbers as a difference between two colors, or sounds, or scents. It’s a qualitative difference, and one that is not appreciated—usually people feel in their heart, “She’s treating time the same way I do, but doing an unexplainably bad job of it.”

Vespucci: I forgot to tell you, the watch also asks when you were born.

Pater: Why? To remind you if you forget your birthday?

Vespucci: I’m surprised, Pater. It’s so it can keep track of your age. You experience time differently as you grow. What seems like an hour when you’re five only seems like half an hour when you’re ten, or fifteen minutes when you’re twenty, or five minutes when you’re sixty. Time seems to go faster and faster as you grow: there’s one change between when you’re a child and an adult, and senior citizens say that every fifteen minutes it’s breakfast. The quality and pace of time change as you age, which is why young people think youth lasts forever and the rest of us think it vanishes. They say that once you’re over the hill, you begin to pick up speed.

Pater: What does “over the hill” mean?

Vespucci: Um…

Metacult: He really doesn’t understand. To him, aging is about maturing and growing, not only for children, but adults as well. He values his youth as a cherished memory, but he’s enjoying his growth and looking forward eagerly to the joy awaiting him in Heaven. He doesn’t understand your self-depracating humor that speaks as if aging were a weakness or a moral failing.

Vespucci: Ok.

Metacult: Which reminds me. One of the ways my experience of time has changed as I have grown has been to recognize that time flows faster and faster. For some people, this is a reason to try way too hard to be healthy—taking care of their bodies, not because their bodies should be taken care of, but to try and postpone the inevitable. But I’m looking forward to the Heaven that’s getting closer and closer, and I am delighted by a glimpse into the perspective of a God who created time and to whom all times are both soon and now.

But the other major change is more internal, more a matter of discipline. I used to live in hurry, to always walk quickly and love to play video games quickly. Then I set foot in Malaysia, and something changed.

There was a difference, which I imperfectly characterized as life being lived more slowly in Malaysia. Which is true, or was for me, but is somewhat beside the point. And I experienced the joy of living more slowly. You know how I’ve thought that it takes humility to enjoy even pride, and chastity to enjoy even lust. At that point I would have added to those two that it takes slowness to enjoy even haste.

Vespucci: So you tried to be as slow as you had been quick?

Metacult: Yes. I observed that I had been obsessed with time under the tyranny of the clock, and so I tried to abolish time by being slow. Which isn’t right; besides chronos, the time a clock can measure, there is kairos, relational or task-oriented or creating time, where you are absorbed in another person or a task, and there time is a glimmer of eternity. And I was interested in the idea of living time as the beginning of an eternal glory, which Pater understands much better than I ever will. First I tried to negate time and live as something less-than-temporal, and I am slowly realizing that instead it means embracing time and entering something more-than-temporal.

In liturgical time—and Pater could say much more about this than I—it flows. Here it moves quickly, there it moves slowly, and there it spins in eddies. It isn’t just the speed that flows; it’s the color, if you will. Just as the priest is the crowning jewel of the priesthood every person is called for, so the touch of Heaven as we worship is the crowning jewel of what time is meant to be.

And I had also been realizing that I had sought to escape time, and not cherish it as God’s good creature. Most recently, I am trying to… There’s a famous quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, saying, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Now I’m looking for a time that is on the other side of complexity: not the mundane ordinariness of disfigured time, but a beautiful ordinariness on the other side of this complexity we’ve been discussing.

Vespucci: How do you think that will work?

Metacult: I don’t know. Part of it has to do with the metaculture you used for my nickname. I don’t simply breathe in my culture and ask “How else could it be?”, but am in the odd position of being able to step into cultures but never be absolutely at home. And have part of me that doesn’t fit. That’s not quite right; I do connect, partly in a way that is basically human, and partly in a way that is—

Janra: Don’t try to explain. That would take an hour.

Metacult: At any rate, a fair number of people talk about living counterculturally, and one way you can live counterculturally is let live time as a blessing rather than a curse. People who say technology determines our lives are almost right, and that almost makes a world of difference if you’re willing to live counterculturally. The pressure on us to live in hurry is not a pressure that no one can escape. It is a pressure that few try to escape in the right way—but you can, if you try and go about it the right way.

But quite a lot of the rest of it has to do with very basic parts of the Christian life. God wants us to seek him first, and when we do, he knows full well what else we need. “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to you as well.” includes a life where time unfolds as a rainbow or a river, something of both color and flow, like the year with its beauty in due season.

Vespucci: Do you see time as a line or a circle? Something that keeps moving in a direction, or something that does the same thing over and over again?

Metacult: Both, of course. God is revealing himself in history and transforming it to his ends. And there is decay; decay follows a line down. In our lives, we are progressing towards Heaven or Hell, and in each day… here we meet the cycles, but if we live well, the cycles in our lives aren’t just an aimless meandering, but like a man who keeps running through a ditch, digging. In one way, he’s going to the same places again and again, but in another way, he’s going deeper—and he may meet both the earth’s warmth in winter (or coolness in summer), and the water of life. The line moves through circles.

Janra: So what would make the perfect watch?

Vespucci: Are there any we haven’t covered?

Metacult: Umm… we’ve looked at one big change from a normal watch—instead of adding a calculator, that Radical Gadgets catalogue had a watch that tries to tell a more human time by taking your age and emotional state into account as well as what most watches tell. That was sort of a Pandora’s box. I think we could all agree that that watch was leagues more human than any normal watch… and it was just human enough to reveal how un-human watches are.

Vespucci: How?

Metacult: When the only kind of watch kept track of seconds, it was easy enough to think that time was simply what a watch told. But when one watch started to pay attention to how you feel…

It was kind of like when you’ve been in the freezing outdoors for a long time, so long that it still hurts a little, but you can almost ignore it. Then you come inside, and THEN it stings. It’s not until you enter a genuinely warm room that you realize how cold and numb you really are.

The Watch in that catalogue was just human enough to reveal how un-human watches, and the time that they tell, are. It did what no other watch could. It’s enough of a success to be a spectacular failure. Someone brought up liturgical time, which led to the suggestion that the watch be programmed to keep track of liturgical time. And then we stumbled into a hole with no bottom. Why can’t a computer keep track of liturgical time? Well, you see, the Spirit does more than just follow calculations… A watch would need far more than better electronics to do that, far more than scientific engineering can provide. Although I did like the suggestion of adding a rock. Even if I don’t see how to make a rock sensitive to women’s time and men’s time. Or rather, what to do to appropriately respect the difference.

Vespucci: Janra, what you said about nominalism interests me. Could you give a more complete explanation?

Janra: I’d love to, but I need to be somewhere next month.

Vespucci: Please be serious.

Janra: I am being serious.

Vespucci: Then be mundane.

Metacult: He is being mundane. If you’d like a good introduction, read Philip Sherrard’s The Rape of Man and Nature: An Enquiry Into the Origins & Consequences of Modern Science. In it, Sherrard says almost nothing about time and everything about the things time is connected to. I think it goes overboard, but if you read it and pay attention to the haunting beauty that keeps coming up, then you’ll learn something about being human—and living in human time. It doesn’t use the word ‘nominalism’ very much, but it says quite a lot about it.

Vespucci: Are there any other things you’ve all left out?

Metacult: Only about two billion. I’ve talked about kairos as an absorbed time instead of a time when you’re watching the clock. What I haven’t talked about as kairos as a divinely appointed time, where you are in a divinely orchestrated dance, and you are free, and yet your movements are part of the divine plan. We are human, not by “just” being human, but by allowing the divine to operate in us; it is the divine, not the human, that we need most to be human. I haven’t discussed that. We haven’t discussed, in connection with nominalism, how there is a spiritual place in us where we meet God, and we have the ability to reason from what we see, and in tandem with nominalism we have become impoverished when both functions are dumped on the reasoning ability and we don’t know where we can meet God, where our minds connect with the very Reason that is God himself. It makes a difference whether we experience time through both our reasoning ability and this spiritual meeting-place, or through our reasoning ability alone.

I also haven’t talked about turning back the clock. When people rightly or wrongly believe there is a golden age they’ve lost, and try to re-create it, they end up severing connections with the recent past and even the golden age.

Vespucci: How does that work?

Metacult: I’m not exactly sure.

My guess is that a living culture has a way of not being ambiguous. It gives corrections when you make false assumptions about it; that’s why people experience culture shock. People trying to re-create a past golden age need never experience culture shock; if you make a false assumption about the golden age, the golden age won’t correct you. So the golden age appears to be whatever you want, and people who aren’t satisfied with the present, and want to re-create past glory, end up pushing a fantasy that is different both from the present and the past. The Renaissance and Enlightenment neo-classicism both tried to re-create the glory of classical antiquity and are both notable as departures from the past. People who aren’t trying to re-create the past can preserve it, saying, “Be gentle with this tradition. It was not inherited from your parents; it is borrowed from your children.” People eager to restore past glory all too often, if not sever, severely damage the link between past and future.

I also haven’t talked about keeping up with the Trumps, and your unadvertised way to say “No!” to the tyranny of the urgent. I haven’t even talked about—

Janra: Stop! Stop. You’re going way overboard. He got your point. In fact, I think he got your point half an hour ago. He—

Pater: Could I interrupt for a moment?

Janra: Certainly. What is it?

Pater: I know this is going to sound REALLY strange, but I want a watch.

Vespucci, Janra, Metacult: Huh?

Pater: You heard me.

Janra: But why?

Pater: I know this is going to sound strange, but I want one.

To you a watch represents all sorts of problems, and I don’t wonder if you’re dumping too much on it. But that’s another issue. I don’t have the ticking clock in me that you do. There’s an issue of sensitivity—I know you hate watches and probably planners, but I burn people by being late and forgetting that just an hour’s delay to me is not “just” an hour to them.

Is it really impossible to make a watch that can represent liturgical time, or even hollow out a space liturgical time can abide in? I thought it was possible now to make a watch that will keep track of sunrise and sunset. Scientific engineering can’t do some things, but could there be another kind of engineering? I suppose that “even” that technical marvel in your catalogue, the watch that knows how long something feels like, would make an awfully neat conversation piece.

Metacult: I think I may know of just the thing for you.

This watch is a sort of hybrid. Part of it is traditional electronic—something that tells hours, minutes, and seconds, that displays the date, and has a timer, alarm, and a stopwatch accurate to the nearest hundredth of a second—and for that matter it’s water resistant to two hundred meters. It’s a bit battered—which adds to its masculine look.

But that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part has an exquisite sensitivity to liturgical rhythm, such as purely electronic gadgetry could never deliver. And it is a connected time, a part of the Great Dance that moves not according to the wearer’s emotions alone but what the Great Choreographer orchestrates. It moves in beautiful ordered time. And there is more. It can enter another person’s or place’s time, and fit. Among other things.

Pater: This is great! Where can I get one?

Metacult: Just a second while I take off my watch… here’s the littlest part. The rest is already inside your heart.

Christmas gift guide 2015: A tale of two watches…

The Horn of Joy: A Meditation on Eternity and Time, Kairos and Chronos

The “natural cycle” liturgical clock

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

The Steel Orb

CJSH.name/orb

The Steel Orb
Read it on Kindle for $3!

Read it on Kindle: part of the collection, The Steel Orb

I awoke, seared by pain. The images dispersed. What were they?

a flat rectangular courtyard, where brick pillars enshrined a walkway, and in the center was a great pool, filled not with water but with silt impressed with intricate patterns—a place that was silent and still, cool in the shade, with robed men moving slowly and conversing without breaking the stillness

alleys and courtyards and tunnels and passageways that made for a labyrinth, with a byzantine structure only exceeded by turgid forms beneath its surface—I was moving through it before I had grasped its rhythm

a vortex, draining life and beauty, draining the life out of—

there was also a single grain of incense, its fragrance filling—

there had been a storm, with wind and water and lightning moving faster than I could keep pace with, a storm, a storm—

then I awoke.

I had washed up on a beach, barely conscious, torn by thirst. I did not see the city in the distance; I saw only a man, clad in a deep blue robe. I tried to call out to him, but I was torn by violent coughs.

Then the scene blurred, and I passed out of consciousness.


When I regained consciousness, I was in a room. There was a man whose hand was on my heart; he looked familiar, I thought. A woman handed him a cup, which he placed to my lips.

Time passed. I could feel warmth and coolness moving through me. My thoughts slowly quickened. He reverenced me, making on himself the great sign, bowing, and kissing me. I went to stand, but he held me down. “Take a time of rest now. In a day I will introduce you to the city.”

I looked at him. The blue robe looked familiar. A question did not arise in my mind; I only wondered later that I did not ask if he had been expecting me, or if he knew I wanted to be a Teacher. Something in his repose kept the question from arising.

The woman looked at me briefly. “My name is Pool. What languages do you know?”

If anything, I sank further back into my chair. I wished the question would go away. When she continued to listen, I waited for sluggish thoughts to congeal. “I… Fish, Shroud, Inscription, and Shadow are all languages that are spoken around my island, and I speak all of them well. I speak Starlight badly, despite the fact that they trade with our village frequently. I do not speak Stream well at all, even though it is known to many races of voyagers. I once translated a book from Boulder to Pedestal, although that is hardly to be reckoned: it was obscure and technical, and it has nothing of the invisible subtlety of ‘common’ conversation. You know how—”

The man said, “Yes; something highly technical in a matter you understand is always easier to translate than children’s talk. Go on.”

“And—I created a special purpose language,” I said, “to try to help a child who couldn’t speak. I did my best, but it didn’t work. I still don’t understand why not. And I—” I tried to think, to remember if there were any languages I had omitted. Nothing returned to my mind.

I looked down and closed my eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m not very good with languages.”

The woman spoke, and when I looked up I noticed her green veil and the beautiful wrinkles about her eyes. “You novices think you know nothing and need to know everything. When I was near your point in life, I knew only six tongues, and I’m still only fluent in four.” She reverenced me, then stepped out the window. Her husband followed, although their spirits still seemed to blow in the wind through the window.

I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep, and I awoke with a start. The man was just stepping into the window, and I could hear a clink of silver. “Will you come to the marketplace? I want you to find the Galleria.”

He still had not told me his name, nor I mine, but as we walked, I told him about the great storm; it was wild on land but wilder at sea. He wondered that I survived the storm, let alone that I washed up; he quoted the proverb, “Where the wind blows, no one knows.” We came to a merchant with dried fruits; he looked at some oranges. “Have you seen Book since you came back?”

“Yes, but I didn’t get to talk with him long.”

“What did he say?”

“He only said two things. The first was, ‘Put my little daughter down!’ Then the second was… let me see if I can remember. He began to say, ‘No, don’t throw her in the—’ But I couldn’t hear the rest of what he hoped to say, because he threw a bucket of salt water at me. Which reminds me, I don’t have salted fish today, but I have some of the finest oranges from the four corners of the world. This orange grew in an orchard where it is said that the trees once bore jewels. I could sell you this fine assortment for two silver pieces each.”

My host sounded astonished. “Two silver pieces each? You are a dear friend, of much more value than the wares you sell. I doubt if you paid two silver pieces for this whole lot of fruit—look at this one! It must have rotted before it was dried. I can talk a bit, but I’m only buying wheat today.” He turned away.

The merchant grabbed his arm. “Don’t go yet. I’ll give you a friend’s price.” I think he said something else impressive, but their haggling could not hold my interest. The market was pungent with strange smells. I recognised the smell of spices, but what else was there? Something strange. I could hear a tantalizing sound of gears, but that was not it. There was a soft sound of wind. What was evading my mind?

I realised my host was walking, holding a bag with some dried oranges. I hastened to follow him.

“My name is Fortress,” he said.

“I am Unspoken.”

“Unspoken… That’s an ambiguous name. You seem to be shrouded in mystery. Have you seen the Galleria?”

We stopped in the Temple, drinking the flow of chant and incense, and reverencing the holy icons. Then we walked out. Fortress showed me a hedge maze in a public park, with a great statue in the centre. I looked at the pedestal, and something caught my eye. “There’s a passage down hidden in the pedestal to the statue. Where does it go?”

He laughed. “You’re subtle.”

I waited for him to continue.

He remained silent.

I asked him, “Will it help me find the Galleria?”

He said, “It helps me find the Galleria. It will only distract you from it. The far wall of the pedestal opens to a passage down, but it only reaches a network of caves where boys play. There is nothing in there that will interest you.”

“Then what,” I asked, “am I to do to find the Galleria?”

“Why don’t you search? The Galleria is not outside the boundaries of this little labyrinth. Only beware of the first solution you want to latch onto. That is often a distraction, and if you are to find a solution you are looking for, you need to be able to grasp something slippery in a place you are not looking.”

I knocked on earth with my ear to the ground; I looked at the cracks between stones; I even scraped a piece of chalk someone had left on the stones, trying to see if its trace would show me a different stone. I found a few loose items; someone had forgotten a brush, and I pushed a lot of earth aside. I searched and searched, but I found no sign of a passage, no sign of anything unusual save the echoes of a hollow shaft in the stone beneath the statue. It was easy for me to find the mechanism to open the pedestal; indeed, I saw a boy emerge from it. I looked around near the statue: could I be missing a second passage nearby? Yet here the search was even more frustrating.

Fortress gave me a slice of orange, and I searched, hot, parched, the whole day through. I was near the point of tears; nothing in the ground offered the faintest trace of a way down.

I sat back in desolation. I rested my back against a hedge; I could see the sleepy sun’s long golden fingers sliding across the hedge. I closed my eyes for a few minutes to rest; I opened my eyes, and could see that the sun’s fingers had shifted. My bleak eyes rested on a funny bulge in the hedge. That was odd; it looked almost as if—I stared. Standing out from the hedge, illuminated in stark relief, was a bas-relief sculpture.

Someone in a robe—what color robe?—swam in the ocean. He swam down, down, down, down, deeper than a whale can dive, and still deeper. Something about the picture filled me with cool, and I began to see through it, began to see the web that it was—I felt a touch on my head. “You’ve found the Galleria. Would you like to go home now?”

I looked. Past Fortress I saw another picture of a swordsman wielding the great Sword, slicing through darkness and error. The Sword swung around him, slicing through monsters around him, and then with no less force slicing through the monsters inside him. I could see—what? It hurt him to cut at errors inside him, but he wielded the Sword against the darkness without and within. I looked entranced.

“Stand up.” Fortress was looking at me. “You’ve seen enough for now; I normally only look into one picture, and you have looked into two after finding the entrance into the Galleria. We will see more of the city later; now, you are tired.”

It wasn’t until I began walking home that I realized how exhausted I was. I ate my meal in silence, lay in my bed, and sunk into sleep. I awoke, still tired, and was relieved when Fortress told me that he had one proper lesson for me but he would need several days’ mundane work for me after that, and it would be a while before anything else exciting happened.

There was one workroom, one that had a forge, an unstable stack of cups with gears and levers, and a box of silt for drawing. There were several mechanical devices in various states of disassembly; Fortress picked up one of them, and turned a crank. I could see gears turning, but the white bird on top moved very erratically.

Fortress looked at me. “Does it work?”

“Not very well.”

“What part is causing the problem?”

I turned the device over in my hands, pushed and pulled at one axle, and turned the crank. After some time, I said, “This gear here isn’t connecting. It’s worn and small.”

“So if I replace that gear, it will work better?”

I hesitated and said, “No.”

“Then what is the problem?”

“The entire device is loose. The teeth aren’t really close enough anywhere; there’s room for slipping.”

“Then is that one gear the problem?”

“No. It is only the easiest thing to blame.”

“Then you did not help yourself or me by telling me that it was that one gear.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but he held up his hand and said, “People will often ask you treacherous questions like that, and they usually won’t know what it is that they’re doing. A Teacher, such as you seem to want to be—”

“How did you know I wanted to be a Teacher?”

“How could I not know you wanted to be a Teacher? A Teacher, such as you seem to want to be—” he continued, “gives an answer that will help the other person, even if that answer is not expected, even if the other person doesn’t want to hear it.”

Fortress shook the clockwork and said, “What would make it work?”

I said, “You could replace all the gear heads with something larger?”

He said, “What if you couldn’t do that? What if the gear heads were made of delicately crafted gold?”

I hesitated, and said, “I can’t think of anything that would help.”

“Anything at all?”

I hesitated again, and said, “If you made the casing smaller, it would work. But how would you—”

He reached down and pulled two metal plates, plus some other hardware and tools, setting them before me. I took the tools, disassembled the original device, and reassembled the new device with a slightly smaller frame.

It worked perfectly.

He asked, “Is there any way for the bird to bob up and down, as well as turn?”

I tried to think of how to answer him, but this time I really could think of nothing. My sense of mental balance, my sense that my understanding was big enough to encompass his Lesson, was wavery. I was unsure.

He took a metal rule, and smoothed the surface of the silt inside the box. He then began drawing with a stylus.

“What if the rod were not solid, but had a cam and inner workings like this? Wouldn’t that work?”

I looked at him, slightly dazed. “You must be a great metalworker. Can you do that?”

He paused a moment and said, “I might be a great metalworker, and I might be able to do that, but that is not why I am asking. Would it work?”

“Yes.”

“Could you make it roll?”

“Yes. Put it in a hollow round casing and then it would roll as part of the casing.”

He laughed and said, “Could you have the front move forward and the back stay in place—without it breaking?”

I cleared the silt’s surface, and began to work diagrams—rejecting several as they failed, working one almost to completion—and then saying, “But that would require a shell that is both strong and elastic, and I have not heard of any who can make a shell like that.”

He seemed unconcerned. “But would it work?”

“If I had such a shell, yes, it would work.”

“Then you have created it. Could you make one that gives birth to another like itself?”

I sketched a descending abyss of machines within machines, each one smaller than its parent.

“Could you make one that gives birth to another machine, just like itself?”

“Yes, if they were all constantly expanding. By the time a child gave birth, it would be the size of its parent when the child gave birth.”

He seemed impressed, not only at what I said, but at how quickly. He closed his eyes, and said, “I will only ask you one more question. How would you design a machine that could design machines like itself?”

I looked at him, at the disassembled machines, at the silt, and then to a place inside myself. “I can’t, and I can’t learn now.”

He looked at me, opened his mouth, and closed it. He said, “We can move to another Lesson. For now, I want you to look at the gears, separating the worn ones from the ones that are new, so that I can melt down the worn ones. You’ve got a meticulous day ahead of you.”

He left, and I began to work through the gears. The work began to grow monotonous. He returned with a leather sack over his shoulder. “I just acquired a number of broken clockwork devices which I want you to disassemble and separate into parts that are usable and parts that need to be melted down. I’ll be back shortly with some metal to melt down and forge new gears out of.” He set down the sack, and I looked in disbelief at the intricate machines with innumerable small parts. I had a bleak sense of how long a stretch of dullness was ahead of me. I started to lay them out so I could disassemble them.

He returned, holding a pike in his hands. “You seem strong, and you’ve had some time to recover. Come with me. Thunder has spotted a bear.”


Fortress stood, armed with a sword, a crossbow, and several quarrels. He had given the pike to me; we followed several other men and spread out into the woods. Fortress told me, “I want you just to search, and cry out if you see the bear—we’ll come. Don’t attack the bear; just set the pike if it charges, and run once it’s hit. I think you have a good chance of noticing the bear. Don’t take any unnecessary risks.”

We spread out, and I moved along, my feet slipping noiselessly on the forest soil. It was more of an effort than it should have been; my body seemed to move with all the fluidity of sludge. The forest looked more rugged than usual; the storm which almost killed me had torn through the forest, and the storm’s mark was far heavier on the forest than the city. I thought of the saying that a storm is liquid fire.

I looked at a tree that had fallen. The dead tree had broken a branch on another tree, and left an unpleasant wound. I cut the hanging branch with my pike, to leave better wound. Then I placed my hand on the tree to bless it, and left it to heal.

I thought of how the hunt would go. Someone would see it, then the men would gather. Those the bear faced away from would fire a volley of arrows. Those it chased would run while others taunted it. When the hunters left the city, there was an edge of excitement; I don’t think it would be the same if it were not risky.

I continued to move along noiselessly, and looked for a creek. I was thirsty. I blessed another tree, hoping it would heal: the storm had left some rather impressive wreckage. It was dead silent, and when I cut a damaged branch from a third tree, two things happened. First, I heard a babbling brook, and realized how parched I was. Second, part of my pike caught on the tree, and I couldn’t wrest it free.

Leaving the pike for a moment, I stole away from the tree and refreshed myself at the brook. I sat for a moment and rested, breathing in simple joy. Then I heard a stick snap on the other side of a rocky outcropping. I realised I could hear some very loud pawprints.

I slithered up the rock, and looked around. I saw nothing.

Then I looked down, and saw the biggest bear of my life.

It looked around.

It smelled.

I held tight against the rock.

Something under my right hand moved noiselessly. My fingers wrapped around a large stone, the size of a man’s skull.

Fear flowed through me. And excitement. I lifted the rock, slowly, noiselessly, and brought my legs in. I lifted the rock.

I felt with my left hand, and found a rock the thickness of my wrist. A flick of my wrist, and it crashed thirty cubits away.

The bear turned its head, and began to run.

As it ran, I jumped.

I began to fall.

I could see the forest moving as if it had almost stopped.

Between every beat of my heart, a thousand things happened.

I landed on the bear’s back, astride it as if I were riding it.

Immediately the bear tensed, and began to turn.

The rock, still in my hand, crushed the bear’s skull.

I could hear a crunch, and the bear’s body suddenly went limp.

My hand released the stone.

The stone began to fall, about to roll over on my leg and crush me.

My hand caught a thin branch from a tree.

I pulled my legs up and pulled the branch as hard as I could.

I tore it off.

The bear’s body turned.

Something slapped my other palm.

I pulled with all my strength, and my body lifted from the bear.

The bear hit the ground.

I looked around.

Most hunting parties killed a bear every few years.

I had heard of a warrior who had killed a bear alone.

I had never heard of someone kill a bear with only the weapons the forest provided.

I lowered myself to the ground.

I watched the bear breathe its last.

I shouted with a roar like a storm’s fury.

Other men began to arrive. Their jaws dropped when they saw me standing over the bear’s carcass—empty-handed.

Fortress walked up to me.

I smiled, with a smile of exhilaration such as I had never smiled before.

He looked into me, looked at all the other men, then curled up his hand and slapped me.

The slap resounded.

I touched my face in disbelief. I could feel hot blood where his nails had struck me.

“You disobeyed,” he said.

He looked into me.

“Next time you do that,” he continued, “it will be a bear’s claw that slaps you. I don’t know what the bear will look like, but it certainly will be a bear’s claw that slaps you.”


I feigned happiness as I walked back. I tried not to stomp. It seemed an age before I came back to the house; I climbed up the wall and into my room and sat on my bed, furious. The sounds of jubilation around me did not help.

He came up, and said, “We’ve been invited to visit someone while people are building a fire.”

A man was at the entryway; I followed him, and my hosts, through some streets into a room. There was something odd, it seemed; I could not have thought of this at the time, but while the other people paid no heed to my anger, but all of the people with me subdued their joy. Suddenly we walked in a door, and I saw a beautiful girl, holding a clay tablet and a stylus. The whole world seemed brighter.

Fortress said, “How is our lovely ventriloquist?”

She looked at him as if her face were melting. I looked at Fortress, and he raised his hand slightly. He would tell me the story later.

The man exchanged reverences with me and said, “Welcome, bear slayer. My name is Vessel. My daughter is Silver, and my wife is Shadow. Find a place to sit. Will you have a glass of wine?” His wife unstopped a bottle.

The girl said, “Father Dear, will you tell us a story? You tell us the best stories.”

I said, “Please. I miss listening to a good storyteller.”

Vessel said, “In another world, there was a big forest on an enormous mountain. There were plants that grew gems as their flowers, only they were so rare it would be easier to take the gems from a mine—and people didn’t harvest them, because the plants were so beautiful. It would have been a sacrilege.

“There was a dark stone hut, round as a leaf, and in it a Teacher as old as the mountains, with wisdom deep as its mines. He had a gravelly voice, like a dull and rusty iron dagger slowly scraped across granite. He—”

Silver interrupted. “Bear slayer, some time you must listen to my father sing.”

The man continued as if nothing had been said. “The forest was rich and verdant, and every morning it was watered by a soft rain.”

At the sound of the word “rain,” I suddenly felt homesick. It rained frequently on my island, but here—I had not seen rain at all.

Silver said, “Rain is a natural wonder that happens when a great ball of grey wool, lined with cotton of the purest white, sails in the Abyss and drops packets of water. Apparently this wonder has been seen in this city, though not within the time it would take a mountain to be ground to dust. This did not stop my father from making a tub on the top of our roof, putting sealed pipes down, so that he could pour water from a pipe in our room if Wind were ever silly enough to blow some of that grey wool over this city.”

Vessel placed a hand over his daughter’s mouth and continued. “He was a many-sided sage, learned in arts and wisdom. Among the things he crafted were a ferret, so lifelike you could believe it was real. If you forcefully squeezed both sides, it would walk along in its own beautiful motion.”

Silver pulled her Father’s hand down and said, “I think I saw one of those wonders from a travelling street vendor. I looked at some of the craftsmanship and heard some of the gears turning. It must have been made by someone very competent, probably not someone from this city. That didn’t stop Father Dear from—”

The man stood up swiftly, flipping his daughter over his shoulder, and walked into the hallway. Shadow said, “That story didn’t last long, even for our family. May I serve you some more wine?”

Vessel walked out, holding a key. “Please excuse the disturbance. I have locked Silver in her room. As I was—”

Silver slid through the doorway, stretching like a cat waking from its sleep, and ostentatiously slid two metal tools into a pouch in her sleeve. “I’m disappointed, Father Dear. Normally when we have guests, you at least put something heavy in front of the door.”

Some time later, I saw Vessel and Silver sitting together. Pool, Silver, and Shadow had left, and I could hear the warm rhythm of women’s talk and laughter from a nearby room. Fortress said, “We were waiting for you. The other hunters have pulled the bear in. Come to the roast!”

I wanted to ask them something, but there were more footfalls outside. I could already hear the drummers beginning to beat out a dance, the singers with their lyres, the priests with their merry blessings, the game players, and the orators with their fascinating lectures. It was not long before we were at the city center.


A young man pulled me off to the side; I saw, on a cloth on the ground, what looked like several pieces of a puzzle. “And now,” another man said, “you push the pellet in, and fit the pieces together.” He moved his fingers deftly, and I could see what looked like an ordinary crossbow bolt.

“What is that?” I said.

“Let me show you,” he said, handing me a cocked crossbow. “Do you see that bag of sand on the roof?”

“Yes.”

“Shoot it.”

I slowed down, took aim, waited for the target to come to the right place, then fired the crossbow. There was an explosion, and I felt something sting my face. When I realized what was happening, I could feel sand falling in my hair.

I looked at him, confused, and he said, “It’s an explosive quarrel. The head contains a strong explosive.”

“Why was the shaft made of puzzle pieces? I don’t see what that added to the explosion.”

He laughed. “The pieces fly out to the sides, instead of straight back at you. It’s quite a powerful explosion—you might find it a safer way to kill a bear.”

I made a face at him, but I was glowing. So these people knew already that I had killed the bear.

I spoke to one person, then another, then heard people clapping their hearts and calling out, “Speech! We want a speech from the bear-slayer!”

I stood, at a loss for words, then listened for the Wind blowing—but I heard only my name. I listened more, but heard nothing. Then I said, “I am Unspoken,” and then the Wind blew through me.

“I am Unspoken,” I continued, “and I love to peer into unspoken knowledge and make it known, give it form, or rather make its form concretely visible. Each concrete being, each person, each tree, each divine messenger, is the visible expression of an idea the Light holds in his heart, and which the Light wants to make more real. And his presence operates in us; he is making us more real, more like him, giving us a more concrete form. You know how a creator, making art or tool or book, listens to what a creation wants to see, wrestles with it and at the same time bows low before it, sees how to make it real; that is how the Light shines in us. And when we listen to the Unspoken and give it voice, we are doing what a craftsman does, what the Light does with us. How do we give voice to an unspoken idea, an unspoken expression? We can’t completely do so; what we can say is always a small token of what we cannot say. But if the Wind is blowing through us, we may make things more visible.” I continued at length, turning over in my spirit the ideas of tacit knowledge and invisible realities, visible, and the divine act of creation reproduced in miniature in us. I traced an outline, then explored one part in great detail, then tied things together. When my words ended, I realised that the Wind had been blowing through me, and I felt a pleasant exhaustion. The festivities continued until we greeted the dawn, and I slept through most of the next day.

All this excitement made my chores in the workshop an almost welcome relief. It began to wear thin, though, after perhaps the third or fourth consecutive day of dismantling tiny devices and then staring at tiny gear teeth to see if they were too worn to use. I began to grow tired of being called ‘bear-slayer’—was there nothing else to know about me?—and there was an uneasy silence between Fortress and me about what I had done. He did not mention it; why not? I was afraid to ask.

I worked through each day, and had an hour to my own leisure after the songs at vespers. Mostly I walked around the city, exploring its twists and passageways. It was on one of these visits that I heard a whisper from the shadows, beckoning. It sounded familiar.

“Who is it?” I said.

The voice said, “You know me. Come closer.”

I waited for the voice to speak. It, or rather she, was alluring.

I stepped forward, and sensed another body close to my own. A hand rested lightly on my shoulder.

“Meet me here tomorrow. But now, go home.”

As I walked home, I realized whose voice it was, and why I didn’t recognize it. It was someone memorable, but she had changed somehow, and something made me wary of the change. Yet I wondered. There was something alluring about her, and not just about her.


The following morning, Fortress looked into me and said, “No.”

Then he left me in the workshop, and I was torn as I sifted through the day’s parts. I was trying to understand my intuitions—or at least that’s what I told myself. What I didn’t tell myself was that I understood my intuitions better than I wanted to, and I was trying to find some way of making what I understood go away. I touched my cheek, and felt the healing wounds. Then I made up my mind to stay in the building that night.

Evening came, and I realised how long I’d been sitting one place. So I got out, and began walking the other way—just a short distance, to stretch my legs. Then I remembered a beautiful building in the other direction, and I walked and walked. Then I remembered something I had overheard—Fortress’s first rebuke had not been everything it seemed. And I found myself in the same place, and felt a soft hand around my wrist. As we walked, and as I could feel my heart beating harder, the ground itself seemed to be more intense. I followed her through twisted passageways, then climbed down several rungs to a place barely lit by candlelight. A strange scent hung around the air. There was something odd, but I could not analyse what. I saw a man in a midnight blue robe bow deeply before me.

“Welcome, Bear Slayer. You did right to kill the bear.”

“How did you know—” I began.

“Never mind that. You did the right thing. Fortress is a fine man and a pillar of the community, and we all need him picking apart devices, day after day—or has he asked you to take that task so he can do something interesting? Never mind. Fortress is a fine man, but you are called to something higher. Something deeper.”

My heart pounded. I looked. He looked at me with a gesture of profound respect, a respect that—something about that respect was different, but whenever I tried to grasp what the difference was, it slipped out of my fingers.

“Your name is indeed Unspoken, and it is truer than even he knows. You were touching an unspoken truth when you left your pike and attacked the bear.”

I couldn’t remember any unspoken Wind, or any sense of good, when I disobeyed, and I was excited to learn that what I wanted to remember was true.

“And I have many things to teach you, many lessons. You were not meant to be staring at gear after gear, but—”

It seemed too good to be true, and I asked him, “When will I be able to begin lessons?”

He said, “You misunderstand me. I will teach you. But go back to him; you have learned enough for tonight. My lessons will find you, and show you something far greater than sorting gear after gear, a power that—but I say too much. Go. I will send for you later.”

My stomach was tight. I was fascinated, and trying not to realise that something wanted to make me retch. “But please,” I said. My voice cracked.

The man shook his head.

I said, “At least tell me your name.”

“Why do you ask my name?”

I heard a sound of a blade being drawn, and a crowd parted to reveal a man holding an unsheathed sword. “Clamp! Do not send him out yet!”

The man who had spoken to me drew a dagger, his face burning red. “Poison! How dare you!”

“How dare I? You should not have held the place of glory to begin with. You—”

“Do you challenge me?”

“I do.”

What happened next I am not completely sure of. Part of it I could not even see. But what I did see was that Poison was great enough a swordsman to make a mighty swing in a tight room.

I saw him swing.

Then I saw Clamp raise his dagger to parry.

Then I heard a high pitched shattering sound.

Then there was a flurry of motion, and Clamp fell over, dead.

In his hand was a sword hilt, and nothing more.

Clamp turned to me, and said with surprising sweetness, “Do come back, my child. Fortress is a fine man, and no doubt he will teach you many important things. We will see each other later.”

I was almost dumbfounded. I stammered, “How did you— What kind of power lets you—”

He bowed again, very deeply. “Farewell to you. We will meet again.”

“Please.”

“You need sleep. You have a long day ahead of you.”

I stood in place, then slowly walked out. I was elated when I heard his voice call after me, “If you really must know something… Everything you have been told, everything you believe, is wrong. Illusion. You just began to cut through the Illusion when you killed the bear. ‘Wisdom is justified by her children.’ But don’t try to understand the Illusion—it is a slippery thing, profoundly unspoken, and we will see each other soon enough. I’ll find you; my classroom is everywhere. Do sleep well. Fortress is a fine man, worthy of respect and worthy to teach you, and I do not doubt he will teach you many exciting and important things.”

I walked back, my heart full of recent happenings. I got into bed, and pretended to sleep.

That morning, I felt like my body was made of frosty sludge. I got up, and when Fortress looked at me, I forced myself to bow to him.

That was the last time I bowed to him in a long while, or indeed showed him reverence of any sort. I resented it even then.

I resented the day’s sweeping and cleaning, but some of my thoughts congealed. Some of my unspoken thoughts began to take solid form. The respect I had been shown—it was different from the respect I was used to. It meant something different, something fundamentally different. It said, “From one noble soul to another.” And the place of meeting was devoid of any adornment, any outer beauty. It had the sense of a place of worship, but as a place it was empty, almost as if it were irrelevant to—there was another thought in the back of my mind, but I could not grasp it.

That night, I thought I heard the sound of Fortress crying. I smiled and slept soundly.


The next morning, Fortress said, “Unspoken, you’ve seen a lot of gears, but I don’t think I’ve shown you how to make a cam. Cams are terrifically interesting, both in terms of making them and what you can make with them. I’d like to show you how to make cams, then some intriguing devices that use cams. Thank you for the sorting you’ve done; we should be able to pull exactly the parts we need. Let me heat up the fire, and then we can both work together.” He looked at me, and seemed surprised at the boredom in my face. We did exactly what he said, and I made several new types of cam, one of which he really liked. There was wind blowing in my ear, but I couldn’t open up and listen to it—I merely wondered that this new activity was even duller than sorting broken parts.

At the end of the day, I said, “When are we going to have a Lesson? I mean a real one?”

He looked at me, held his breath, and said, “I can only think of one Lesson for now. It is not one that you would like.”

I said, “Please?”

He said, “Humility is the hinge to joy and the portal to wonder. Humility is looking at other things and appreciating them, instead of trying to lift yourself up by pushing them down. If you push things down, that is the road to misery. Pride pushes things down, and it cuts it off the one thing that could bring joy.

“You are seeking joy where joy is not to be found. Seek it elsewhere, and it will find you.”

I hastened out to the street.

Once on the street, I went where I had gone before, but no one reached out to me. I explored, and found several people talking, gardens, statues, and a bookstore I’d not seen before, but there was nothing that interested me. Where was Clamp?

I went back home, and Fortress said, “Have you heard of the Book of Questions?”

I feigned interest. “I’ve heard about it, and it sounded fascinating,” I said, truthfully. “I’d like to hear what you can tell me,” I lied.

“I was just thinking about one of the questions, ‘What is reverence?’

“There are three things that we do when we reverence each other. We make on ourselves the great sign, and we bow before each other, and we kiss each other.

“The Sign of the Cross is the frame that sets the display of reverence in place. We embrace each other in the Cross’s mighty shadow.

“Bowing is the foundation of all civilized discourse. When we bow, we lower ourselves before another; we acknowledge another’s greatness. That is the beating heart of politeness; that is the one reason why politeness is immeasurably more than a list of social rules.

“A kiss is everything that a bow is and more. A kiss is a display of reverence, and of love. Do you know why we kiss on the mouth?”

I looked at him, not seeing his point. “What do you mean? Where else would one kiss?”

“I have travelled among the barbarian lands, and there are tribes where a kiss on the mouth is the sort of thing that should be saved for one’s wife, or at most one’s family.” He must have seen the look on my face; he continued, “No, they are not distant from each other, and yes, they live together in genuine community. It is altogether fitting and proper, and our embrace would be out of place in that land. Just because you or I would find it strange to pull back from our brethren this way, as if we were talking to someone through a wall, does not change the fact that it is woven into a beautiful tapestry in their community.

“But let us return to our lands. Kissing on the mouth is significant because it is by our mouth that we drink from the Fountain of Immortality. We reverence the Temple when we enter it, kissing the door and entrance; we ourselves are the Temple, and our mouths are the very door and entrance by which the King of Glory enters when we Commune. Our mouths are honored in a very special way, and it is this very place that we show our reverence.

“But there is another reason. It is by our mouths that we breathe the wind, that we spirit; it is the very spirit that is present in the mouth, and our spirits are knitted together. So the kiss is everything the bow is, and more, and it is the fitting conclusion when we reverence each other. It is communion.”

I listened with interest. His words almost pulled me out of my misery.

He closed his eyes, and then said, “Do you know how long it is since you have kissed me?”

I began to approach him.

He pushed me away. “Stop. Go and learn to bow, truly bow. When you have learned to bow, then you may kiss me.”

I walked out of the room, pretending to conceal my fury.


Dull, empty day passed after dull, empty day. Fortress tried to teach me things, and I really had no doubts that he was a fine man, but… whatever the great Illusion was, he not only believed it; he couldn’t think to question it. I found Silver from time to time, and had comfort by her, but… I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t take me in to the group. And the rest of the world grew bleaker and bleaker.

Then it happened.

I snuck behind her one day, never giving a hint of my presence, until I found myself led into the chamber, the meeting place. They were chanting; there was something elusive about the chant, and I remained hidden in the shadows. Then Clamp himself saw me in the dark, and said, “Welcome. You have made it.” There was a wicked grin on his face.

“Why did you not call me back? Why did Silver not lead me here? Was I not worthy?”

“You were not. Or, I should say, you were not worthy then. We were testing you, to see when you would make your own way in—then you were worthy. That you have come is proof that you are worthy—or at least might be. It does not speak well of you that you took so long. Look at me. Your very face tells me you have been drained by things unworthy of you—dull people, trivial lessons, a warhorse being taught the work of a mule.

“Or at least that’s what I could say being generous. I think you are still enmeshed in the Illusion—it is still quite strong in you. So strong that it can probably affect what you see, make what is before your eyes appear to be what it is not.

“There is another test before you. Take this dagger.”

He placed in my hand a stone dagger with a serpentine curve to it. It was cold; a coldness seemed to seep through my body and my heart began to pump the icy chaos of a sea at storm. I felt sick.

“There is a clay dummy in the next room, exquisitely fashioned. Place this dagger where its heart would be. You will cut through the illusion, and be ready to drink of the Well of Secrets.”

I walked. Aeons passed each footstep; each footfall seemed like a mountain falling and beginning to crumble. And yet it seemed only an instant before I was in the next room.

My stomach tightened. I could not say what, but something was wrong. There was something like a body that was deathly still.

I could see the feet only; the face was covered. Some Wind blew in the recesses of my heart, and I tried to close it out.

I walked over, my stomach tighter. The Wind inside me was blowing louder, leaking, beginning to roar. And then I smelled a familiar smell. How could they make clay smell like—

I twisted the dagger and tore the cloth off the dummy’s face. It looked like Fortress. Then Wind tearing through me met with the breath of his nostrils.

I gasped.

I threw up.

There was a sound of laughter around me—or laughing; I could never call it mirth. It was cruel and joyless, and tore into me. And still I retched.

“Do you need help? Or are you really so weak as that?

“Maybe you didn’t belong here; not all who merely force their way in are truly worthy.”

I looked around on the ground, and saw Fortress’s staff.

In a moment I snatched the staff, and cast away the dagger.

I stood, reeling.

“I am not worthy. I am not worthy to be here, still less to be with Fortress. And I’d like to take a heroic last stand, and say that if you’re going to kill him—if whatever black poison you’ve used won’t already do so—you’ll have to kill me first, but I would be surprised if I could achieve any such thing against you. I cannot call myself Fortress’s disciple; that illusion is broken to me. But if I may choose between reigning with you and being slaughtered with Fortress, I can only consider being slaughtered with Fortress an honor that is above my worth and reigning with you to be unspeakable disgrace!”

Clamp looked at me with a sneer. “I don’t know why I ever let you in, disciple of Fortress.” He grabbed a sword, and made one quick slice.

I felt hot blood trickling down my chest.

“Go on, to your fascinating gears and your deep, deep lessons. Carry your Teacher. We’ll meet again. Now I don’t think you’re worth killing. I don’t know what I’ll think then.”

The blood flowing down my chest, I picked up my unconscious Teacher and his staff.

“The path out is that way. Never mind the drops of blood; you won’t reach us this way again.”

As I carried his heavy body towards the marketplace and then his home, I panted and sweated. Fortress seemed to be regaining consciousness. I staggered across the threshold and then laid him on the bed.

Pool looked ashen. “Are you all right, Salt?”

Fortress looked at her. “Never mind me; the poison they used is short-lived. I’ll simply need more sleep for a few days, and life will go on. Look at Unspoken. I have not been that stunned by a man’s behavior in many years.”

I collapsed on the floor, then rose to my knees. “Fortress. I have sinned against Heaven and before you. If you have any mercy, show one more mercy that I do not deserve. Give me money that I may return to my island, and no more inquire into things too wonderful for me.”

Fortress turned to Pool. “Get one gold sovereign, a needle, and thread.”

I looked at him. “One gold sovereign? But that would buy more than—”

“Bite this,” he said. “I’ll try to make the stitches small.”


“I still do not understand,” I said.

“Never mind. Tell me what our robes mean.”

“Your robe is blue, the color of starry Heaven. Your gift is the one thing needful, to be focused on the Light himself. My robe is green, the color of earth. My gift is to attend to many things on earth. I have wanted to gain the higher—”

“The green robe, and all that it symbolises, is needed, and I do not think you appreciate your gift. And not only because both of us look to the Light and attend to the Creation it illuminates. Place the two colors on the Cross.”

“That is a child’s exercise.”

“Place the two colors on the Cross.”

“The blue robe is the color of the vertical arm of the cross, the great tree whose roots delve fathoms down into earth and whose top reaches to Heaven. It is our connection with the Light. The green robe is the color of the cross’s horizontal arm, connecting us with other creations. Is there a reason you ask me this?”

He placed his finger at the top of my chest, at the very center—at the top of my wound.

Then he ran his finger down the freshly stitched skin.

I winced in pain.

“It seems you are not a stranger to the blue robe.”

My jaw dropped when his words unfolded in my mind. “Fortress, I cannot believe you. Before, you were being generous. Now you are being silly. This wound is not the arm of the cross reaching from Heaven down to earth. I earned this by my own wickedness, and you would destroy me if you knew what evil I had done.”

“Are you sure?”

“Fortress, this evil is far worse than lust. It lures you with excitement, then drains the wonder out of every living thing. What are you doing?” I stared in horror as he removed his robe.

“Look at me.”

I closed my eyes.

“Trust me.”

I opened my eyes, and looked upon his body. Then I looked again. There was a great, ugly, white scar across the top of his chest. He made the sign of the cross on himself, and when his fingers traced out the horizontal arm of the cross, the green arm, I saw his fingers run over the scar.

“I know that pain better than you think.”

I was unable to speak.

“Pool is getting you something to eat. You’ve had quite a difficult time, and your pain will continue. Let’s spend tomorrow at the Temple, and then we can get to tinkering.”

I was weak, and my wound pained me, but there was a different quality to the pain.


I felt weak. Still, as I entered the Temple, it didn’t matter. Once inside the doors, I was in Heaven, and Heaven shone through earth more clearly than it had for long. I smelled the fragrant incense, the incense that ascends before the divine Throne day and night and will ascend for ever.

I walked into the middle part of the Temple, and lay down on the cool, unhewn stone floor, drinking in the glory. I looked through the ceiling at the Heavens: the ceiling was beautiful because it was painted with the blood of sapphires, and more beautiful because it was not sealed. It had chinks and holes, through which the Heaven’s light shone, through which the incense continued to rise, and through which Wind blew. I could hear it howl and whisper, and I looked at the Constellations, all seven of which blazed with glory.

I saw the Starburst, a constellation in which one single Glory shot out many rays, and then these many rays coalesced into the one Glory. I let it resonate. I thought of the Creator, from whom all things come and to whom all things return. I thought of learning one thing, then learning many things, then finding the one interconnected whole behind them all.

I looked at the Window of Heaven: a saint shining through a picture. What was it of symbol that was captured so well? In the Constellation one could see the present connection between the saint and the Icon he shone through, indeed itself a window into how the divine Glory shines in a man.

I saw the threefold Tower: on the ground level was body, and then the lower of the upper floors was that which reasons and assembles thinking together, and the higher of the upper level was that which sees in a flash of insight precisely because it is connected, indeed the place one meets the Glory. What were some of the other nuances of these levels?

Then I looked at the Sword, the Great Sword in the War that has been fought since before ever star shone on dew-bejewelled field and will be fought until stars themselves are thrown down, trampled under those who laughed as children among the dew. It sweeps wherever there is Wind, larger than a mountain, smaller than a gem-collecting aphid, stronger than the roaring thunder, so sharp that it sunders bone and marrow. Why, indeed, was it given to men?

The Chalice, the great and Sacred Chalice itself, that held the fluid more precious than ichor, the fount of incorruptibility, a fount that will never be quenched though the mountains should turn to dust and dust turn to mountains. The Chalice from which we drink, the Chalice we kiss when we kiss the—why again should men be so highly exalted?

The Rod and Staff, as ever, were crossed against each other. “Your Rod and Staff comfort me,” rise in the chant. The Staff’s curves offered comfort to a straying sheep, I knew. And the Rod that went with it—a club with metal spikes, ready to greet predators. A shepherd was a hardened man, an armed guard ready to fight with his life when wolves came to destroy his sheep.

And last, the Steel Orb—a ball, rolling all around an animal hide as the hands at its edge moved up and down, making a slope now here, now there, now a valley, now a shifting plain. The Steel Orb indeed moved throughout the two levels—or was it really one?—of the threefold Tower, now here, now there, now met by complex construction, now silence, now a flash of inspiration. The Steel Orb is the inner motion that is inseparably connected with the world of invisible truths. It is the ear that listens when the Wind blows. It is the placid pool that reflects all that is around it.

I closed my eyes. Then I looked at the Eighth Constellation, the whole starry roof. The Greatest Feast, when death itself began to move backwards, must have come early that year, about as early as possible; the Constellations stood fixed as they had appeared the year the Temple had begun, just after the day began, and the great Vigil began. There couldn’t really be a more representative night to represent the year, nor a better time of that day to stand in.

My breath was still; I stood up, reverenced Fortress and the other Icons, then found the waiting priest and cast off my sins in penitent confession. I do not even remember feeling relieved from that, which is strange: I stood in the stillness as it became song, as voices rose in chant, and the morning was greeted and the divine liturgy began.

I do not remember the liturgy; I do not remember even when the liturgy ended and the priest held a healing service and anointed me with the oil of restoration. What I remember was when it ended, and there were people all around me, their faces alight. It was like waking from a dream, a dream of which one remembers nothing save that there was an inexpressible beauty one cannot remember.

I walked home in Fortress’s shadow, and only then remembered something that didn’t fit. I remembered—or thought I remembered—the priest’s strange advice after my confession: “Be careful. You have a difficult journey ahead of you.”


Fortress sat down in front of the work bench. He picked up one gear, then set it down, then rooted through some axles, and sat back.

“Unspoken, I’ve asked you to sort gears, take machines apart, put machines together, melt gears down, and forge new gears from the molten metal. I’ve asked you to repair machines, and tell me when gears were made of too soft of a metal. What I haven’t asked you to do is tinker. So we’ll have a race. Today you can think, and I’ll make a mechanical cart. Then you can make a mechanical cart tomorrow. And we’ll see, not whose cart can go fastest, but whose cart can go farthest in the smooth part cloister. This will be part ideas and part choosing the best parts. Why don’t you go up to your room? You’ll have the range of this workshop tomorrow.”

I paced up and down my room. I thought. There were several coiled springs in the workshop; having seen some of his previous designs, I was almost sure he would make something spring-powered that would go the distance the spring kept. And how was I to outdo that? He would probably know what spring was best, and he would almost certainly know how to choose parts that moved with each other.

A faint whisper of Wind blew in my mind. I turned over different designs of springs—could I make something more powerful with two springs? The Wind grew, slightly more forceful, and I tried to make it tell me how to best use springs. It became more and more forceful, but I was afraid to drop everything and listen. I began to see, not springs at all, but a burning—

Then I sensed something.

There was something that radiated beauty and fascination. I could not see it. But I sensed it.

“Who are you?” I said.

“I am your Guardian,” came the answer. “I was sent to you.”

I looked. I still could not see anything, but the beauty is overwhelming.

“What is the idea that is slipping? It has fire, and I hot steam, and—”

“Pay no mind to that. It is nothing.”

“How can I build a better spring?”

“Don’t. Build a simple, spring-driven cart out of good parts. Then take a knife, and nick the axle on your Teacher’s wagon. That is all. It will bind slightly, and your cart will go further. Or it should.”

“But—is that fair?”

“Is that fair? He took the first choice of everything, and you know you lack his year’s practice. Come. He wants you to surprise him. He wants you to show ingenuity. This is something he wouldn’t expect of you.”

I thought I could see colors glowing, shifting, sparkling. Somewhere, in the recesses of my being, it was as if a man jumping up and down and shouting. It was almost enough to draw me away.

“But how can I find his cart? Surely he will hide it, so it will not be a temptation to me.”

“Never mind that. I will show you. Just watch me. I was sent here to draw you into Heaven’s beauty.”

Entranced, I watched the colors shift. It tasted—I tasted the same excitement, the icy brilliance of lightning and the tantalizing heat of lust. I never knew that Heaven could be so much like my former craft.

The next day I built a craft, but no pleasure came from it. It was drained of pleasure, but I was looking for that enticing presence. It seemed to have gone.

Where was Fortress’s cart? I couldn’t see it. I looked in nooks and crannies. Something seemed wrong. Then… I was aware of the bad intuition first. But I heard a shimmer. “Look right in front of you.”

Ahead of me, on top of a pile of disassembled devices, was a cart.

I took a blade, and nicked one of the axles.

The shimmer spoke. “One more thing.

“Look at me.”

I looked, and the beauty seemed at once more intense and hollow—and I could not look away.

“Sing an incantation over it.”

“What?”

It seemed as if a dark hand was pushing me forward.

I chanted, and watched in horrid fascination. Something seemed to shimmer about my cart. Whenever I looked at it, it seemed the same, but whenever I turned away, it seemed as if there was some beautiful incense rising from it.

The next day, it easily won.

Fortress looked at his cart crossly, with consternation and puzzlement. He seemed to be looking through it.


The next thing I remember was retching, on the workbench. Fortress and a priest were standing over me, although I did not notice them at the time. All I could notice for the time being was an overpowering stench. I wanted to keep retching forever. My spirit was sapped.

“That was not a Guardian,” the priest said. “You have listened to a Destroyer.”

“If you meet that presence again, make the Sign of the Cross and say, ‘Lord, have mercy.'”

I looked at him weakly. “What can I do? I thought I had repented.”

“You have repented, and you need to repent again. Pray and fast this week, then make your confession, and come to the Table. Don’t go anywhere near that shimmer, no matter how attractive it is. Run, and invoke the Holy Name. And talk with Fortress and me. And if you fall again, repent again. The saints are all praying for you.”

I tried to take it in. His words stung me—not because of what he said, but because of why it would be appropriate to say them.

He reverenced me, bowing low. I felt something in his reverence.


With Fortress’s leave and the priest’s, I went to the monastery to spend my time in prayer and fasting. I took a lump of dry bread each day, and some water.

As the hours and prayers passed, my head seemed to clear. Foul desires raged, but I just resisted them.

The third day after I was at the temple, I ate nothing, and sang songs, and my body seemed lighter. I remembered the secret learnings I’d made, and they seemed vile, paltry. As the sun set, I suddenly thought of Silver. I was off here, selfishly caring for myself, while she was in the vile grip that squeezed me! I stole out of the monastery, and found her almost immediately.

She placed an arm around my waist. I pulled back, but she held me and said, “I’m just placing an arm around your waist. What is it?” I spoke with urgency and concern, and she ‘just’… I do not wish to recall the full shame, but when it was over, Clamp stood over me and threw a hemp belt. “Bind his hands.”


As I was walking, captive, I thought of the advice the priest had given me. But how was I to make the sign of the cross? I could try. I tried to move my hands, hoping something miraculous might happen.

Clamp struck my face, and said, “Don’t try to wriggle out.”

My face stung. I held my tongue, and then let out a rebel yell: “LORD, HAVE MERCY!”

The world seemed to move like melting ice.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

I watched every detail of rage flare in Clamp’s face.

I heard a shift of cloth and bodies moving.

I saw his hand raised, to strike a crushing blow to my face…

…and descend…

…and caught in the talons of an iron grip.

I did not turn my head. I was too bewildered to look and see why my face was not stinging.

I had somewhere heard that voice before. It seemed familiar. And it was speaking quietly.

I had heard this voice speak quietly in contentment. I had heard it speak quietly to tell a secret. I had heard this voice speaking quietly in banter. What I had not heard was this voice speaking quietly because it was beyond rage, a rage that had gone beyond burning fire to be cold enough to shatter ice.

“Let him go,” the voice hissed.

I recognized the voice of my Teacher.

“Let him go,” Fortress glared.

Clamp laughed, and let go of me. “Fortress! How wonderful to see you! May I get you a glass of wine?”

Fortress began working on my bands. He said nothing.

Clamp said, “A great Teacher like you has much to offer, could probe much secret wisdom. You seemed to have a knack for—”

I felt my stomach quiver.

A crowd was beginning to form around us: no one was right by us, but many were looking.

Fortress said, “No.”

My stomach knotted. I had an overwhelming sense that I should move.

I obeyed it.

Clamp looked at Fortress.

Fortress looked at Clamp.

The anger in Fortress’s face began to vanish.

Clamp seemed to be leaving fear and entering terror.

I backed off further.

I saw a faint ripple of muscles across Clamp’s body.

I began to scream.

Metal sang as a sword jumped from its sheath.

I saw, moment after horrid moment, the greatsword swing into the side of Fortress’s head.

Then I heard a shattering sound, and when I realised what was happening, Clamp had been thrown up against the far wall, while Fortress was in the same place.

The sherds of a sword hilt dropped from Clamp’s hand.

The anger vanished from Fortress’s face. He looked, and said, “Come back, Clamp. We need you.”

I could hear the sadness in his voice.

Clamp ran away in abject terror.

I had been fasting. Even if I had not been fasting, I would have…

I fainted.


My head slowly began to clear—much more slowly because Fortress was carrying me again.

“I’ll sleep at your doorway at the monastery,” Fortress said, “and fast with you.”

I closed my eyes. “I’m sorry. I don’t deserve to—”

“Not as punishment, Unspoken. You’ve endured punishment enough; harsh fasting and vigils are a much lighter load than—but you are weak and vulnerable now. You need the support. And I would like to share this with you.”

The fasting passed quickly. Or more properly, it moved very slowly, and it was hard, but there was cleansing pain. The Wind moved through me, and gave me respite from my burdensome toil of evil.

When it was the eighth day, Fortress and I returned to the Temple. A mighty wind was blowing all around, and its song and its breath moved inside. Wind blew through every jewel of the liturgy. And there was—I couldn’t say.

After the end of the liturgy, when I was anointed for healing, Fortress said, “Let’s go home and get to work. Pool has some money to buy a chicken, and—why are you hesitating?”

“Could I return to the monastery and fast for another week?”

“Why? You have done what the priest asked. You needn’t do more. There is no need to engage in warfare above your strength. Remember, the Destroyers always fast.”

“That’s not why.”

“Why, then?”

“That’s what I am trying to find out.”


I prayed and fasted, and my head seemed to clear. I succeeded that week from returning to my vomit; I think it was because Fortress spent the week with me, and he was generous to spend that long without seeing Pool. He prayed with me, and at the end, my mind took on a new keenness. I still did not know what it was the Wind was trying to tell me.

But I no longer resisted it. Fortress gently said, “You have fasted further, and I will trust you that it was the right thing to do. But why not let this fast meet its summit in a feast? I can buy a chicken, and we can sit down at table.”

“But the—”

“Do not worry about that. If the Wind holds a message for you, the Wind will make that clear enough. Let’s return.”

Once home, I asked him a simple question. I think the question was, “Why are you so concerned for me?” Or it might have been, “What is your experience with the poison I tasted?” Or something else. And he gave a long and interesting answer to me.

I don’t remember a word he said.


My stomach was full of roast chicken, dried lemon, and all the bread I wanted. Pool was generous with wine. Fortress’s voice was humming with the answer to whatever question I asked, and I could hear the chatter and laughter of small children in the background. It concentrated my thoughts tremendously.

What was your error?, the Wind whistled in my ear.

In a moment, I searched through the evils I committed and drew in a breath. Pride, I said in my heart. The primeval poison that turned the Light-Bearer into the Great Dragon. The one evil that is beyond petty sins like lust.

You embraced that evil, but what was your error?

I drew in another breadth. Everything. Lust. Magic. Scorning the beauty of the Light. Seeking to order the world around myself. As I think over the great evils that exist, I do not see that I am innocent of any one of them, nor free of their disease.

Those wrongs have been obliterated forever. They are no more. You are innocent of them. You are being healed. The vilest of these, your pride itself, is a smouldering coal thrown into the infinite Ocean. What was your error?

I do not understand. I have hardly made errors greater than these—if ‘error’ is even the word. Do you mean something small by ‘error’?

No, something great and terrible. What was your error?

I do not understand.

What was your error?

With my inner eye, I saw the pelt and the Steel Orb, only frozen. The Steel Orb needed to move, but it was locked in place. Those words haunted me, chased me, yelled at me. I long lie awake that night, searching to see what was being asked. At last, as the pale light of the dawn began its approach, I drifted into sleep.

I saw, in vivid detail, the moments of my descent. Only it was different in my dream. When I had actually lived it, I saw things through a veil, through an Illusion. I suffered empty pain, and thought I was gaining wholeness. Now the illusion was stripped away, and I saw every moment how I had thrown away gold to fill my hands with excrement. And every time, the Glorious Man looked at me and asked what the Wind had asked, “What was your error?”

I saw a time when I listened eagerly. I was being told secrets, hidden truths beyond the ken of the ordinary faithful. I was, I had thought, being drawn into the uppermost room and tasting with delight its forbidden fruit. The Glorious Man looked into me, looked through me, and asked, “What was your error?”

I was awake, bolt upright in my bed. My body was rigid. In the window I saw that the dawn had almost come. “Fortress!” I called.

In an instant, Fortress was by my side. “What is it?”

“You have felt the pain I felt.”

“Every evil by which you have poisoned yourself, I have done, and worse.”

“What was your error?”

He paused a moment, and said, “Pride.”

“No. What was your error?”

“More evil than I can remember.”

“When you descended into that living Hell, did you embrace evil alone, or did you embrace evil and error?”

He drew in a breath. “Climb up to the roof with me.”


The dawn was breaking; stream after stream of golden, many-hued light poured over the edge of the city. We both sat in silence.

Fortress seemed completely relaxed.

I was not.

“Fortress, I did not win our race.”

Fortress’s eyes greeted the sun.

“I know.”

He drank in more of the light, and said, “Would you like to have another race?”

Time passed.

“You can choose who makes his wagon first.”

“You make your wagon first.”

I drew a breath.

“It must be painful for a Teacher to watch his pupil descend into filth and have to rescue him and carry him back.”

“To me, that is a very good day.”

I looked at his face, trying to find sarcasm or irony.

I found none.

“Why?”

“Clamp was my pupil.”

I didn’t know what to say. I fumbled for words. I tried to meet his pain.

“You seem very happy for a man with no children.”

I saw tears welling up in his eyes.

I began to stammer.

He said, “Let’s go and build our cars. If you want, you can take the silt board so you can design your wagon while I’m building mine. A fair match would be balm to my soul.”


I looked at the board. Something was ticking in the back of my mind—fire on the spring, was it? But why? I set to work on the board, trying to reconcile something burning with a spring and gear box. Something was knocking in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t listen to it. In the end I told myself I’d make a spring driven wagon with a lamp on top: a large one, that would burn brightly.

The next day, I set about smithing the lamp. I enjoyed it, and it was a thing of beauty. Almost at the end of the day my eye fell on something, and I saw that Fortress had left the best spring for me.

The next day we raced, and I lit my lamp. It burned brightly. It finished two laps, while Fortress’s cart made fully twenty laps round the cloister, but he liked the lamp; its flame was a point of beauty. “Keep trying,” he said, “although I’m not going to ask why you put a lamp on. I’ll be in the workshop sorting gears; could you care for customers?”


At the evening meal Fortress seemed preoccupied; it looked as if he was listening.

We sat in silence.

He moved, as with a jolt. “Unspoken, what were you saying to me when we greeted the coming of the dawn?”

My face turned red.

“No, sorry. I mean, before then.”

“I don’t know. My sense was that it was something important, but I doubt if—”

Fortress dropped his bread and moved to give Pool a deep kiss. “Come with me, Unspoken.”


As we walked, he turned to me and said, “The Great Fast is approaching, and we all need to purify ourselves. You especially.”

“But I am working on—”

“That is why you especially need to be purified. Forget that completely.”

I recognized the route to the monastery.

“There are some things I can give you, but you need to be at the monastery. As much as you are able, submit discipline as if you were a monk. Draw on their strength. Afflict yourself. Gaze on the glory of the Light.”

“But—”

“Trust me.”

Not long after, we arrived at the monastery. He spoke briefly with the head monk, Father Mirror, and reverenced me. “The Mother who held the Glory in her arms now holds you in her heart and in her prayers.” Then he left.


The rhythm of the calendar, of the week, of the day, became clearer. My head itself became clearer. With the discipline I became hazier and the Glory became clearer.

I was praying in my cell, and suddenly it was illuminated with beauty and light, so that the flame of my lamp could not be seen. I was dazzled, and at the same time uneasy.

I looked, and I saw the form of the Glorious Man. He looked at me and said, “You have done well.”

I felt as if there was something jumping up and down, shouting for attention, inside me.

“I will tell you what you are to write about your error.”

I was fascinated. Or almost fascinated. I turned my ear to the man jumping up and down. And wrenched myself away.

I bowed my head, and said, “Glorious One, I am not worthy.”

Immediately I reeled. A stench, that felt as if I was touching fetid—I do not want to say what it smelled like. I fell backwards, reeling and gasping for breath.

I heard a shuffle of cloth, and then footprints. The chief monk stepped in. He looked displeased, although I wasn’t sure he was displeased at me. He bid the other monks leave, and said to me, “My son, tell me everything.”

I hesitated. “You need to sleep so you can greet the morning in chant.”

“My son, another of my brother monks can lead that greeting even if you are still talking when it comes.”

I opened my mouth, and talked, and talked, and talked. He seemed surprised at times, but looked on me with kindness. At the end he said, “I will take the cell next to you and pray with you. The whole monastery will pray over you.”

“I am not worthy—”

“And I am not worthy to serve you and give you what strength I can. If it were a question of being worthy—” he shuddered. “Sleep, and rise for the morning chant if you can.”

That night I was riven by my dreams.


Evils in me that I thought were dead rose up with new life. I interrupted Father Mirror often, and he told me to pray, “Heavenly Glory, if you want me to fight these impulses, that I will do.” And I did. Gradually the fight became easier. I began to count the days, and contemplate the Glory.

As time passed, I lived to join the monks, the stars and the rocks, beings of light, in contemplation above everything else. I looked into the Glorious Light when—

I felt a hand shaking me. I opened my eyes, and collected my presence. Then I closed my eyes and looked away.

“What is it?”

His face was radiant. “I was looking on the Glorious Light, and—”

Silence.

“I am not worthy to look on you. That light is shining through your face. Leave me alone.”

“My brother.”

I said nothing.

“Look at me.”

I turned to face him, keeping my eyes down.

“You would not see this light coming from my face unless it were coming from your face as well.”

“You mock me. My face? I am not a monk, nor have I gone through years of discipline. And I have—”

“The Wind blows where it will. You could not see this light at all unless your face were radiant.”

I said nothing.

“I have come to call you. It is time for the Great Vigil.”

“Time for the Great Vigil? The Great Feast tonight? But it is scarcely a day that has passed since—”

“I know. I am not ready either. But the Feast is here. And those prepared and unprepared are alike compelled by the joy.”

I went through the Great Vigil at the monastery, reverenced each of the monks. Then Father Mirror accompanied me home, the dark streets lit by the brilliance of his face. I joined Fortress and Pool in the revelry; I danced with Pool. Then Fortress walked home, one arm over Pool’s shoulder and one arm around mine. When we stepped across the threshold, Fortress said, “It is time for a race.”


I let Fortress build his wagon first, and insisted that he take the best spring. Then I sat down with the silt tablet.

My intuition had been to mix fire and water. Or something like that. Or burn water. Or—I sketched one design after another, trying to see how they would help a spring, or gears for that matter. Towards the end of the day, I sat down, perplexed, and wiped the slate clean. I had given up.

That night, I prayed my giving up. Then—it took me a long time to get to sleep.

In the morning, I left the springs alone entirely. I pulled out the metal lamp and made a nearly-sealed water tank to go above it. I put the water tank above the flame, and fitted something special to its mouth. By the end of the day, I was exhausted, and my fingers were sore.

The next day, Fortress wound the spring, and I took a tinderbox and lit the flame. He looked at me slightly oddly, and when he turned his cart around at the end of the first lap, looked at me gently.

My cart hadn’t moved.

At the end of the second lap, he asked me, “Did your cart move?”

I said nothing.

At the end of the fourth map, he said, “Your cart is moving.”

And it was. Steam from the heated tank was moving one part, which turned gears, to the effect that it was moving very slowly. And it continued moving slowly for the rest of the day, finally stopping after it had run a full seventy-two laps.

Fortress walked away from me with a look of amazement. “Unspoken, I’ve got to tell my friends about you.”


As I was drifting off to sleep, the Wind whistled in my ear: What was your error?

The Steel Orb broke free from one spot, and began to roll, first one way, then another. It seemed to be exploring its strength, moving just a little this way, just a little that way.

I wrestled in my thoughts, like a man trying to lift a greased boulder. I was not trying to lift it yet; my fingers slid over the surface, seeking purchase.

Thoughts flowed through my mind, wordless thoughts that slid away whenever I tried to capture them in worded form. I grasped after them with patient, eager expectation.

I did not notice when I descended into the depths of slumber.

I was staring into a dark, deep, colorless, shapeless pool, and trying to see its color and shape. There was light behind me, but for the longest time I did not look into it. Then I looked into the light, and turned, and—

A voice said, “Awaken!” and I was shaken awake.

Fortress and Father Mirror were both crouching over me. I sat up, nervously.

“What is it?” I said, flinching against a rebuke.

“Last night, I was speaking with the bishop,” Father Mirror said, “when a messenger arrived, limping. He had been severely delayed. A Holy Council has been summoned, and the bishop requests that Fortress, you, and I join him on his travels.”

“Me? I would just be a burden.”

“Never mind that. He did not tell me his reasons, but he specifically requested that you join him immediately.”

“What about—”

“No ‘what about’. Will you obey?”

I turned to Fortress. “May I use your crossbow?”

“A crossbow has been packed on your horse.”

“On the way out, may I visit a friend?”

“Quickly.”

Still in a daze, I reverenced Pool and bade her farewell. Then Fortress gave his farewell, and we found the horses.

I knocked on a door—I thought it was the right door—and said, “I’ve been summoned on a journey by the bishop, and I do not understand why. But may I buy all of your explosive quarrels? I have some money I could offer.”

“Bear slayer, you may have them. Without money. Just let me get them.” He stepped in, and seemed to be taking a long time. I heard more and more rummaging, and Father Mirror sounded impatient. Then he came out, looking sheepish. “I’m sorry. I can’t find them. I’ve looked all around. I wish I—”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Just remember me.”

Before the sun was above the mountains, we were on the Road.


We rode along at a cantor. The horses were sleek and strong, and I placed myself opposite the bishop.

He placed himself next to me.

“My son, I offer my apologies, but I wish to talk with you.”

“Why?”

“Tell me about what you did wrong. And what you’ve done since.”

I told him, and he said, “There is something more. What more is there?”

“I don’t know how to say. It’s just that… something about it seems different from struggling with sin. Like there’s something different involved, that is error.”

“All sin is error. Pride especially is illusion.”

“But… Would you say we believe the same things? Perhaps you understand them better than I, but would you say we believe the same things?”

“Yes, certainly. But they do not believe the same thing. It is not a single mistaken belief.”

“What would you say if I said it wasn’t just an error in the specific thing one believes, but an error so deep that… an error whose wake said, ‘What you believe is private?'”

The bishop turned towards me.

His eyes narrowed.

“The highest part of the inner person is mind, but it is not private. In an immeasurably greater way than the five senses, it connects with and wrestles with and apprehends and conquers and contemplates the spiritual realities themselves. Those who choose error grapple with these realities in the wrong way like—like a man trying to climb a mountain upside down. The mountain is there, and the hands and feet are there, but they’re not connected the right way.”

The bishop was silent.

“But… When I stepped into that vortex, I had something of a sense that I was breaking away from the mountain, like it was an illusion, and creating my own private hill, and forging the limbs of my body that I could use to connect with it. I—”

The bishop remained silent.

I fumbled. A flash of insight struck. “I was stepping into a secret, hidden reality, rejecting ordinary people’s reality. That is pride. But normally when we say ‘pride’, we mean an evil of which one part is illusion. Here there it is more like the Illusion is the spiritual reality, and bitter pride is its handmaiden. No; that’s not quite right. The relationship is—”

He looked at me. “That’s enough for now. Let us chant psalms together. I want to hear more, but please, my son, don’t believe I’m only concerned with getting that out of you.” He paused a moment, long enough for me to realize how tense my body was. “Now Fortress told me you’re quite a tinker?”


“He glared,” the bishop said, “and said, ‘and I will not speak with anyone lower than a bishop!'”

“What did you say,” I asked.

“I looked at him wearily, and said, ‘Believe and trust me, good man, when I say that no one here is lower than a bishop.”

He paused a moment and continued, “Unspoken—”

A flood of memories came back. It was not what he said, but how he said it. He had spoken in my island’s dialect. His accent was flawless.

“How do you know my island’s dialect?” I asked. “I come from an insignificant and faroff island. Nothing important has ever come from that island, and nothing ever will.”

“That’s easy enough,” he said, “I was born there.

“Unspoken, I am a man like you.” He paused, and continued, “There is a place I was born. I have a father and mother, and brothers and sisters. I remember the first time I skipped a stone, the thrill when I reinvented the pipe organ. I contemplate and pray, hunger and—”

“Your Grace, how did your father introduce you to the art of memory?”

“When I was a boy, I loved to swim. I swam as much as I was allowed, and some that I wasn’t. There was a lagoon, with a network of underwater caves, and some of them I was allowed to explore. My uncle chipped and ground a mica disc enclosed in a ring of copper, and showed me how to close my eye around it. I could see under the water, and I watched the play of light inside the one largest cave. My uncle also gave me a bent spear, with the head pointing sideways, and I speared many meals with it.

“One day my father looked at me and said, ‘Fire, if you could decorate the cavern in the big pool, what would you put there?

“I thought and said, ‘Blankets along the wall so I could feel something soft.’

“He said, ‘What else?’

“I said, ‘Nothing else.’

“‘What might you imagine?’

“‘There’s nothing else that would work.’

“‘And things that wouldn’t work?’

“I hesitated, and said, ‘A candle to see by, and something to write with.’

“‘What else?’

“‘Come. You are wilder than that.’

“‘Color, as when the leaves of the forest go green.’

“‘And what if there were passageways branching off? What would you like to see there?’

“He led me to imagine this vast network of rooms and passageways, each one different, each one holding something different, each one different to be in. It was a wonderful game, and swimming was almost as enjoyable as this activity.

“One day, my father added another dimension. He walked up to me with a rope and said, ‘Do you see this rope?’

“‘Yes,’ I said.

“‘What is the strangest thing that could happen to it in the antechamber to your labyrinth?’

“‘If it were not soaked, for it to fall down to the floor.’

“My father was silent.

“‘Or it would be peculiar for it to fall, not up or down, but to the side.’

“I expected a smile. My father looked and me and said, ‘Surely you have imagined things stranger than that.’

“I said, ‘It could coil and uncoil, slithering around the walls before coming together to a bundle—and then coming together and vanishing.’

“My father smiled and said, ‘And what of that plate there? What could happen to it in the room under?’

“I laughed at the things I imagined; such strange things happened to the things in my rooms, and I invented things on my own. Then I began to be bored, and my father saw my boredom. ‘This game bores you. Let’s move on to something else.

“‘Look up. Note what position the stars are in. After ten nights’ span, I will open the cover of a box and you will behold forty things you’ve not seen before. Then I will leave you with the box and eat a large loaf of bread. When I have returned, I will return and we will climb that peak, and when we reach the top, you will tell me everything you saw in the box.’

“I jumped slightly, and waited for him to explain himself.

“When no explanation came, I said, ‘I can’t carry a wax tablet when I’m climbing the peak.’

“He said, ‘Nor would I allow it if you could.’

“I said, ‘Then how will I do it?’

“He said, ‘I’ve already told you.’

“I was angry. Never had he been so irrational as this. For seven days I searched my heart in wrath, searching. On the eighth day I rested from my wrath and said, ‘He will say what he will say. I renounce anger at his request.’

“He had begun his odd request by releasing me from my labyrinth; I delved into it. I imagined the first room, but I couldn’t banish the rope coiling and uncoiling. I swam to another room, only to have something else greet me. I swam around, frustrated again and again when—

“My face filled with shame.

“I spent the next two days playing, resting, swimming. I moved through the imaginary labyrinth. When my father pulled the cover off the box, I placed everything in my imaginary labyrinth, one in each room, exactly as he had taught me. It took him a while to eat the bread, so I stared at the box’s rough leather lining. We walked, and talked, and the conversation was… different. I enjoyed it.

“He asked me, ‘What was in the box?’

“I said, ‘A key, a stylus, a pebble, a glazed bead, a potsherd, a gear, an axle, a knife, a pouch, a circle cord, some strange weed, a stone glistening smooth by the river’s soft hands, a statuette, a crystalline phial, a coil of leather cord, a card, a chisel, a mirror, a pinch of silt, a candle, a firecord, a badly broken forceps, a saltball, a leaf of thyme, an iron coin, some lead dregs, a bite of cured fish, a small loaf of spiced bread, some sponge of wine, a needle, a many-colored strand of parchment, an engraved pendant—hmm, I’m having trouble remembering this one—a piece of tin wire, a copper sheet, a pumice, a razor, a wooden shim, a pliers, and a measuring ribbon.’

“‘I count thirty-nine,’ he said. ‘Where’s the fortieth?’

“I ran through my rooms and hesitated. ‘I memorized thirty-nine things, then stared at the rough leather inside the box. I didn’t see another; I don’t even have the trace of memory like when there’s another one that I can’t quite spring and catch.’

“When I said, ‘rough leather inside the box,’ he seemed pleasantly surprised. I didn’t catch it at the time, but I understood later.

“And that was how my father let me taste the art of memory. How did your father teach you the art of memory?”

“I don’t have as good a story to tell. He introduced me to the more abstract side—searching for isomorphisms, making multiple connections, encapsulating subtle things in a crystalline symbol.”

“Oh, so you’ve worked with the abstract side from a young age. Then I have something to ask of you.”

“Yes?”

“I want to speak with you further. I’d like if you could inscribe in your heart the things you tell me. When we return—pardon, if we return, if we are shown mercy—I may send you to the monastery and ask you to transcribe it so it can be copied.”

My heart jumped.


His Grace Fire asked me, “If you were to crystallize your dark journey in one act you did, what would it be?”

I slid my mind through my sins. I watched with a strange mixture of loathing, shame, and haunting desire as I—

“Stop,” he said. “I shouldn’t have asked that. I tempted you.”

I looked at him and blinked. “None of the actions I did encapsulates the journey.”

He cocked one eyebrow.

“Or rather, all of them did, but the entire dark path is captured by one action he didn’t do. I neither gave nor received reverence.”

“That doesn’t seem surprising,” he nodded. “Pride is—”

“That’s also true,” I said.

He looked at me.

“In our reverence, we greet one another with a holy kiss. That is hard to appreciate until you have tried to step outside of it. We try to be spiritual people, but however hard we try, matter is always included. Every one of the Mysteries includes matter. We worship with our bodies. Fasting does us good because we are creatures of body—all of the Destroyers fast, all of the time, and never does any of them profit by it. Our great hope is that we will be raised in transformed, glorified and indestructible bodies to gaze on the Light bodily for ever.

“More to the point, the holy kiss is the one act in the entire Sacred Scriptures that is ever called holy.”

He blinked. “I hadn’t thought about it that way, but you are right.”

“And… there was licentiousness; we could do wrong with our bodies, but this is only for the reason that the holy kiss was not possible. The spiritual embrace draws and works through body, because body is part of spirit. Their asceticism and libertinism alike exist because of a wedge between spirit and body.”

“How can they do that? That is like driving a wedge between fire and heat.”

“Of course you can’t,” I said, “but they think they can.”

“My son,” he said, “you are placing things upside down. We fast to subdue our bodies, which have become unruly; spirit and matter are not equal partners, nor is matter the center of things. In this world or the next.”

“You’re wrong,” I said. “You only say that because your approach to spirit has always assumed matter. If you had genuinely lived the life and practice of believing that matter was evil, was not our true selves, not illusion, you would understand and not say that.”

I winced when I realized what he’d just said. I waited for his rebuke. Or a slap.

“Go on,” he said. “I’m listening.”

“Or maybe that was too bold. Spirit is supreme; the Glory is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. But… struggling to subdue matter, and impregnate it with spirit, does not let you realize what place matter has. Returning from despairing in matter as evil is very different.”

“Despair?”

“Despair…” I thought. “Matter is evil, probably the evil creation of an evil god. If that is true, you cannot relate to the cosmos with joy, not even abstemenious joy. You must despair in it. And—I think this is connected, it’s all connected—if the entire cosmos is an illusion which we must escape, then no less is its creator the same sort of thing. There’s a perverse acknowledgment, I think, that the cosmos must reflect its Creator and radiate its glory. Because if they believe this horrible thing about the cosmos, they believe the same about its Creator, and as they transgress the cosmos as an obstacle they get past, so they transgress its Creator as an obstacle to get past. From what I’ve heard, their pictures of subordinate gods vary, but one of the few common features is that since this cosmos is evil or illusory, and this cosmos must reflect its Creator, the Creator himself must be something we need to get past if we are to find real good.”

“You are describing an error that is really more than one error.”

“Yes. Things are… private. They consider themselves more spiritual, more of the spiritual power we use to touch spiritual realities, yet somehow they have a hydra’s different pictures of what those spiritual realities themselves. In some of them it almost sounds as if that spiritual apprehension is private.”

“I won’t ask you to inventory everything that was private. Did you see any of the Scriptures?”

“Not many. And those I read were… odd.”

“Odd?”

“The Gospels are wondrous documents indeed.”

“Indeed.”

“But they never pander. Never does a writer say, ‘I tell these things that you may be titillated.’ However amazing or miraculous the events are, the miracles are always secondary, signs that bear witness to a greater good.

“And I appreciated this after the few occasions I was able to read their Gospels. Those books do not tell the story of when Heaven and Earth met; the ones I read don’t tell a story at all; they are collections of vignettes or stories, that suck you in with the appearance of hidden wisdom. They appeal to someone despairing of this cosmos and seeking what is hidden behind it. Your Grace, only when I had tried to dive into those crystallized vortices had I realized how pedestrian the Gospels are: the Glorious Man shines with the uncreated Light and we blandly read that his clothes are white as no fuller on earth could reach them.”

“Hmm,” he said. “That’s like—a bit like the difference between marriage and prostitution. In many ways.”

“And… if you understand this basic despair, a despair that forges the entire shape of their relationship to Creation and Creator, you will understand not only their excessive asceticism and their license, their belief that the Light is not good, but also their magic. The incantations and scrolls are in one sense the outermost layer of a belief: if this Creation is evil and illusion, if one must transgress it to find truth, then of course one does not interact with it by eating and drinking, ploughing and sewing. One must interact in hidden, occult ways, and gain powers.”

“I see. But don’t get into that; I’d rather not have you remember that poison. And I assume you could say much more, but I’m beginning to get the picture, and I want to pray and contemplate the Glory before meeting any more of it.

“How would you summarize it, in a word?

“There are many ways our Scriptures can be summarized in a word: ‘Love the Glory with all of your inmost being and your soul and your might, and love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘He has shown you, O man, what is good, and what does the Glory require of you, but to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly in the Light.’ ‘The Glory became a Man and the Glorious Man that men might become Glorious Men and Glories.’ And this error could be summarized in many ways…

“‘Your spirit too pure for this unworthy cosmos.'”

“Take a rest,” he said. “I think you’ve said enough for now. Let’s pray.”

“Oh, and one other thing. When your heart is set on pushing past the One Glory, there seem to many gods offering their protection and guidance.”

“Pray, child. You’ve said enough.”


We reached another city, and Fortress said, “We have a decision to make. The city we want to reach is due East. The road turns, and heads almost directly south.”

I said, “Why?”

“Because East of the city is the dark forest.”

The bishop looked at him. “I think we can enter the city and buy a good meal. But we lack the time to take the Southern route.”

Less than two hours later, we were re-supplied and heading East. It was weeks before we met anything worse than stepping in poison ivy.

At night, I was awoken by the sound of a foot shuffling. I looked around; it was still Fortress’s watch, and Bishop Fire and Father Mirror were already getting up. The campfire was burning low, and in the flickering torchlight I saw a ring of many eyes.

“Black wolves,” Fortress whispered. “Stand up and mount your horse slowly.”

I reached across my bedroll. Fortress hissed, “No. We can’t afford that. I don’t know what—”

I slid up on my horse and slowly reached for my crossbow. Fortress hissed, “Are you crazy? There are more wolves than quarrels, and they’d be on us by your third shot.” Then he cocked his head and said, “Whisper soothing in your horse’s ear. And be ready to gallop.”

The wolves had become visibly closer in this scant time; one started to run towards Fortress’s horse. Then Fortress reared and parted his lips, and bellowed.

I have never heard a man roar that loudly. Not before, not after. It hurts my ears to think about it. He roared like thunder, like waterfall, like an explosion. The wolf was stunned, and immediately he was galloping forward, the wolves running from him in abject terror. It was all I could do to control my horse, and it took some tracking before Fortress found Father Mirror.

We sat in our saddles; every sound, every smell, seemed crisper. Then I realized that tendrils of dawn were reaching around, and as we rode on, we descended into a clearing and His Grace said, “Look! The great city itself: Peace.”


It seemed but an hour and we were inside the great city itself. Having taken time to drink our fill of water, but not eat, we came into the great chamber where the holy bishops and the other attendees were gathered.

I could hear Wind blowing. I tried to listen.

“And I know,” an archbishop said, “that not everyone can scale the hidden peaks. But you misunderstand us gravely if you think we are doing a poorer job of what you do.”

Several heads had turned when we entered. An archbishop said, “Your Grace Fire! May the Glory grant you many years. Have you any thoughts?”

The Wind whispered in my ear, and quite suddenly I climbed on top of a table in an empty part of the chamber. I ignored the shock of those around me, so intently was I listening to the Wind’s whisper.

“If that is anything,” I shouted, “but a lie from Outer Darkness, may the Glory strike me down!”

I heard a click, and then several things happened at once. I was thrown violently forward, and I heard an explosion. I felt an unfamiliar sensation in my back, and I tasted blood.

A deathly silence filled the room. I began to move, and slowly picked myself up. “I repeat,” I said. “If that is anything but a lie from Outer Darkness, may the Glory strike me down.”

There was another explosion, and I felt fire on my back. I stood unmoved.

“I repeat. If that is anything but a lie from Outer Darkness, may the Glory strike me down!”

The Wind whispered, “Duck!”

I ducked, and a crossbow quarrel lodged itself in the wall.

Time oozed forward.

There was a scuffle, and four soldiers entered. One of them was holding a crossbow. Three of them were holding Clamp.

“Fathers and brothers, most reverend bishops and priests, deacons and subdeacons, readers and singers, monks and ascetics, and fellow members of the faithful, may the Glory reside in Heaven forever! I speak from painful awareness that what that son of darkness says is false. That is how it presents itself: a deeper awareness, a higher truth.

“This Council was summoned because you know that there is a problem. There are sins that have been spreading, and when you encourage people to penitence, something doesn’t work. It is as if the disease of sin separated us from our natural union with the Light, and when the chasm was deep, the Glorious Man became Man, the Great Bridge that could restore the union… and something strange happened. Men are sliding off the Bridge.

“Fathers and brothers, the problem we are dealing with is not only a chasm that needs to be bridged. The problem is a false path that leads people to slip into the chasm.

“This error is formless; to capture it in words is to behead the great Hydra. It will never be understood until it is understood as error, as deadly as believing that poison is food.

“It is tied to pride; far from enjoying Creation, visible and invisible, however ascetically, it scorns that which we share, and the path of salvation open to mere commoners. It’s the most seductive path to despair I’ve seen. I know. I’ve been there. The teaching that we are spirit and not body, that there is a sharp cleavage between spirit and body… I don’t know how to distinguish this from proper asceticism, but it’s very different. When we fast, it is always a fast from a good, which we acknowledge as good when we give it back to the Light from whom every good and perfect gift shines. This is a scorn that rejects evil; I don’t know all the mythologies, but they do not see the world as the shining of the Light. The true Light himself would never stain his hands with it; it is the evil creation of a lesser god.

“And it is despair. It tingles, it titillates, it excites at first, and all this is whitewash to cover over the face of despair. Everything that common men delight in is empty to them, illusory joy. The great Chalice, that holds the meat of the Glorious Man’s own flesh and holds the fluid more precious than ichor, his own true blood, the fluid that is the divine life—that all who partake see what they believe and become what they behold, younger brothers to the Glorious Man, sons of Light, sustained by the food of incorruption, servants in the Eternal Mansion who are living now the wonder we all await—I will not say what exciting thing they propose to replace it by. Some manage, I know not how, to find greater wonder in saying the Man was not the Glory and the Chalice as we know it is nothing. But it is in the beginning as sweet as honey, and in the end as bitter as gall and as sharp as a double-edged sword. In a word, it says, ‘Your spirit is too pure for this unworthy cosmos.’

“It is not healthy to dwell long on such things; I will not tell how its broken asceticism turns to people believing they can do whatever they wish with their bodies. (If the body is evil, not our true self…) He who long gazes into darkness may find his eyes darkened very soon or very slowly. In either case it is not good. But I will say this: Gaze on the Light, be strengthened by the Glorious Man, and listen to the Wind, and the better you know it, the less Darkness will look like Light. And we can rise against this error as error.”

The archbishop who spoke when I entered said, “Would His Grace Fire please speak? I believe he has been rudely interrupted.”

His Grace Fire looked at him levelly. “I have already spoken,” he said, “and I have nothing further to say.”

Then His Grace turned to me. “Unspoken. Your robe is damaged beyond repair. Would you like a green or blue robe to replace it?”

My voice quivered. “A green robe was chosen for me. I need to—”

“That isn’t what I asked of you. Would you like a green or blue robe to replace it?”

I looked at Fortress.

He fell on his face prostrate before me and said, “Dear Unspoken, you have surpassed my humble tutelage for ever. I release you.”

I turned back to His Grace Fire. “A blue robe.”

Then I turned to Father Mirror. “To gaze on the glory as a member of your monastery.”

A flask of oil was in the bishop’s hands. “Unspoken, I give you a new name. You have spoken the unspoken. You have delved into the unspoken, searched it out, drawn forth jewels. I anoint you Miner.”

All was still as he anointed my forehead, my eyes, my mouth, the powers of my body.

The Council’s decision was swift. My words had opened a door; insight congealed in the hearts of those present. It moved forward from discussion to decrees, and decrees in turn gave way to the divine liturgy.

I had never been at a Meal like that, and have never been at one since. The uncreated Light shone through every face. I saw a thousand lesser copies of the Glorious Man. The Wind blew and blew. The Glory remained with us as we rode home.

We rode in to the city, and I saw Pool. She—she looked different. But I couldn’t say why. Was I seeing a new beauty because of the Light? I sat silently and watched as Fortress dismounted. She walked up to him, and slowly placed one arm over one of his shoulders, and then the other arm over the other of his shoulders, and looked at him and said, “There is life inside me.”

His eyes opened very wide, and then he closed them very tightly, and then he gave Pool the longest kiss I have ever seen.


“Wait,” Father Mirror said. “First discharge your duty to our bishop. You will have this life and the next to gaze on the Glory. My guest room is free to you for as long as you need.”

I looked at him wistfully.

“The highest oath a monk takes is obedience. That oath is the crystallization of manhood, and when you kneel before me as your father, your spirit will fall in absolute prostration before the Father of Lights for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and on earth is named. And if you are to be in obedience to me, you can begin by waiting to take that oath.”

I waited.

The days passed swiftly. Quills and scrolls were given to me, and I inscribed three books. I wrote The Way of Death, in which I wrote about the error as a path, an encompassing way of living death, in which error, evil, and sin were woven together. I contemplated, prayed, and spoke with Fortress and others. Then I wrote The Way of Healing, in which I answered the question, “If that is the path we should avoid, what path should we walk instead?” Then I wrote The Way of Life, in which I left the way of death behind altogether, and sought to draw my reader before the throne of the Glory himself. I wrote:

But what can I say? The Light is projected down through every creature, everything we know, yes, even the Destroyers themselves. But if we try to project upwards and grasp the Light, or even the hope that awaits us, it must, it must, it must fail. “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” These rooms are nothing other than us ourselves—the habitations and places into which we invite friend and stranger when we show our loves, and the clay that is being shaped into our glory, the vessels we will abide in forever. The Tree from which we were once banished, has borne Fruit without peer, and we will eat its twelve fruits in the twelve seasons. Yet a tree is smaller than a man, and a man is smaller than—

The temple where we worship, where Heaven and earth meet, is now but the shadow cast when the Light shines through the Temple that awaits us. The Light is everywhere, but we capture him nowhere. He is everything and nothing; if we say even that he Exists, our words and ideas crumble to dust, and if we say that he does not Exist, our words and ideas crumble beyond dust. If we look at the Symbols he shines through, everything crumbles, and if we say that everything crumbles, those words themselves crumble.

I end this book here. Leave these words behind, and gaze on the Glory.

I dropped my pen and sat transfigured in awe. I was interrupted by shaking. “It’s time for the Vigil?”

I began to collect myself. “Vigil?”

“The Vigil of when Heaven and earth met, and the Word became flesh.”

I opened my eyes. I realized the end of a fast had arrived.

“The books are finished.”

“Finished?”

“Finished.”

I do not remember the Vigil; I saw through it, and was mindful only of the Glory. The head monk learned I had finished, and the bishop was called.

Then came the feast. Pool held a son at her breast, and looked dishevelled, tired, radiant. Fortress beamed. His Grace Fire spoke on the three gifts given the Glorious Man: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Gold was a reverent recognition of his kingship, Myrrh a reverent recognition of his suffering, and Frankincense a reverent recognition of his divinity. He turned these three over and over again, blending them, now one showing, and now another. His words burned when he said that in the person of the Glorious Man, these gifts were given to the entire community of Glorious Men.

The feast was merry, and when it wound down, Father Mirror welcomed me into the community. It was a solemn ceremony, and deeply joyful. I swore poverty, chastity, and obedience. I found what I had been seeking when I fled my island. Then I was clothed—I was given the shroud, the cocoon of metamorphosis by which I was to be transfigured during the rest of my life.

After I retired to my room, I heard a knock at my door, followed by quick footsteps. I looked around, but saw no one.

Then I looked down, and saw a gift box. It was empty. Or was it?

Inside was a single grain of Frankincense.

Firestorm 2034

The Sign of the Grail

Stephanos

Within the Steel Orb

The Monastery

Read it on Kindle: part of the collection, Firestorm 2034

CJSH.name/monastery

It was late in the day, and my feet were hurting.

I had spent the past three hours on the winding path up the foothills, and you will excuse me if I was not paying attention to the beauty around me.

I saw it, and then wondered how I had not seen it—an alabaster palace rising out of the dark rock around it, hidden in a niche as foothill became mountain. After I saw it, I realized—I could not tell if the plants around me were wild or garden, but there was a grassy spot around it. Some of my fatigue eased as I looked into a pond and saw koi and goldfish swimming.

I looked around and saw the Gothic buildings, the trees, the stone path and walkways. I was beginning to relax, when I heard a voice say, “Good evening,” and looked, and realized there was a man on the bench in front of me.

He was wearing a grey-green monk’s robe, and cleaning a gun. He looked at me for a moment, tucked the gun into a shack, and welcomed me in.

Outside, the sun was setting. At the time, I thought of the last rays of the dying sun—but it was not that, so much as day giving birth to night. We passed inside to a hallway, with wooden chairs and a round wooden table. It seemed brightly enough lit, if by torchlight.

My guide disappeared into a hallway, and returned with two silver chalices, and set one before me. He raised his chalice, and took a sip.

The wine was a dry white wine—refreshing and cold as ice. It must have gone to my head faster than I expected; I gave a long list of complaints, about how inaccessible this place was, and how hard the road. He listened silently, and I burst out, “Can you get the master of this place to come to me? I need to see him personally.”

The servant softly replied, “He knows you are coming, and he will see you before you leave. In the mean time, may I show you around his corner of the world?”

I felt anger flaring within me; I am a busy man, and do not like to waste my time with subordinates. If it was only one of his underlings who would be available, I would have sent a subordinate myself. As I thought this, I was surprised to hear myself say, “Please.”

We set down the chalices, and started walking through a maze of passageways. He took a small oil lamp, one that seemed to burn brightly, and we passed through a few doors before stepping into a massive room.

The room blazed with intense brilliance; I covered my eyes, and wondered how they made a flame to burn so bright. Then I realized that the chandaliers were lit with incandescent light. The shelves had illuminated manuscripts next to books with plastic covers—computer science next to bestiaries. My guide went over by one place, tapped with his finger—and I realized that he was at a computer.

Perhaps reading the look on my face, my guide told me, “The master uses computers as much as you do. Do you need to check your e-mail?”

I asked, “Why are there torches in the room you left me in, and electric light here?”

He said, “Is a person not permitted to use both? The master, as you call him, believes that technology is like alcohol—good within proper limits—and not something you have to use as much as you can. There are electric lights here because their brilliance makes reading easier on the eyes. Other rooms have torches, or nothing at all, because a flame has a different meaning, one that we prefer. Never mind; I can get you a flashlight if you like. Oh, and you can take off your watch now. It won’t work here.”

“It won’t work? Look, it keeps track of time to the second, and it is working as we speak!”

The man studied my watch, though I think he was humoring me, and said, “It will give a number as well here as anywhere else. But that number means very little here, and you would do just as well to put it in your pocket.”

I looked at my watch, and kept it on. He asked, “What time is it?”

I looked, and said, “19:58.”

“Is that all?”

I told him the seconds, and then the date and year, and added, “But it doesn’t feel like the 21st century here.” I was beginning to feel a little nervous.

He said, “What century do you think it is here?”

I said, “Like a medieval time that someone’s taken a scissors to. You have a garden with perfect gothic architecture, and you in a monk’s robe, holding an expensive-looking rifle. And a computer in a library that doesn’t even try to organize books by subject or time.”

I looked around on the wall, and noticed a hunting trophy. Or at least that’s what I took it for at first. There was a large sheild-shaped piece of wood, such as would come with a beautiful stag—but no animal’s head. Instead, there were hundreds upon hundreds of bullet holes in the wood—enough that the wood should have shattered. I walked over, and read the glass plate: “This magnificent deer shot 1-4-98 in Wisconsin with an AK-47. God bless the NRA.”

I laughed a minute, and said, “What is this doing in here?”

The servant said, “What is anything doing here? Does it surprise you?”

I said, “From what I have heard, the master of this place is very serious about life.”

My guide said, “Of course he is. And he cherishes laughter.”

I looked around a bit, but could not understand why the other things were there—only be puzzled at how anyone could arrange a computer and other oddments to make a room that felt unmistably medieval. Or was it? “What time is it here? To you?”

My guide said, “Every time and no time. We do not measure time by numbers here; to the extent that time is ‘measured’, we ‘measure’ by what fills it—something qualitative and not quantiative. Your culture measures a place’s niche in history by how many physical years have passed before it; we understand that well enough, but we reckon time, not by its place in the march of seconds, but by the content of its character. You may think of this place as medieval if you want; others view it as ancient, and not a small part is postmodern—more than the computer is contemporary.”

I looked at my watch. Only five minutes had passed. I felt frustration and puzzlement, and wondered how long this could go on.

“When can we move on from here?”

“When you are ready. You aren’t ready yet.”

I looked at my watch. Not even ten seconds had passed. The second hand seemed to be moving very slowly.

I felt something moving in the back of my mind, but I tried to push it back. The second hand continued on its lazy journey, and then—I took off my watch and put it in my pocket.

My guide stood up and said, “Walk this way, please.”

He led me to a doorway, opening a door, and warning me not to step over the threshold. I looked, and saw why—there was a drop of about a foot, into a pool of water. The walls were blue, and there was sand at the far end. Two children—a little boy and a little girl—were making sand castles.

He led me through the mazelike passages to rooms I cannot describe. One room had mechanical devices in all stages of assembly and disassembly. Another was bare and clean. The kitchen had pepperoni and peppers hanging, and was filled with an orange glow that was more than torchlight. There was a deserted classroom filled with flickering blue light, and then we walked into a theatre.

The chamber was small, and this theatre had more than the usual slanted floor. The best way I could describe it is to say that it was a wall, at times vertical, with handholds and outcroppings. There were three women and two men on the stage, but not standing—or sitting, for that matter. They were climbing, shifting about as they talked.

I could not understand their language, but there was something about it that fascinated me. I was surprised to find myself listening to it. I was even more surprised to realize that, if I could not understand the words, I could no less grasp the story. It was a story of friendship, and there is something important in that words melted into song, and climbing into dance.

I watched to the end. The actors and actresses did not disappear backstage, but simply climbed down into the audience, and began talking with people. I could not tell if the conversation was part of the act, or if they were just seeing friends. I wondered if it really made any difference—and then realized, with a flash, that I had caught a glimpse into how this place worked.

When I wanted to go, the servant led me to a room filled with pipes. He cranked a wheel, and I heard gears turning, and began to see the jet black keys of an organ. He played a musical fragment; it sounded incomplete.

He said, “Play.”

I closed my eyes and said, “I don’t know how to play any instrument.”

He repeated the fragment and said, “That doesn’t matter. Play.”

There followed a game of question and answer—he would improvise a snatch of music, and I would follow. I would say that it was beautiful, but I couldn’t really put it that way. It would be better to say that his music was mediocre, and mine didn’t quite reach that standard.

We walked out into a cloister. I gasped. There was a sheltered pathway around a grassy court and a pool stirred by fish. It was illumined by moon and star, and the brilliance was dazzling.

We walked around, and I looked. In my mind’s eye I could see white marble statues of saints praying—I wasn’t sure, but I made up my mind to suggest that to the master. After a time we stopped walking on the grass, and entered another door.

Not too far into the hallway, he turned, set the oil lamp into a small alcove, and began to rise up the wall. Shortly before disappearing into the blackness above, he said, “Climb.”

I learn a little, I think. I did not protest; I put my hands and feet on the wall, and felt nothing. I leaned against it, and felt something give way—something yielding to give a handhold. Then I started climbing. I fell a couple of times, but reached the shadows where he disappeared. He took me by the hand and began to lead me along a path.

I could feel a wall on either side, and then nothing, save his hand and my feet. Where was I? I said, “I can’t see!”

A woman’s voice said, “No one can see here. Eyes aren’t needed.” I felt an arm around my waist, and a gentle squeeze.

I felt that warmth, and said, “I came to this place because I wanted to see the master of this house, and I wanted to see him personally. Now—I am ready to leave without seeing him. I have seen enough, and I no longer want to trouble him.”

I felt my guide’s hand on my shoulder, and heard his voice as he said, “You have seen me personally, and you are not troubling me. You are here at my invitation. You will always be welcome here.”

When I first entered the house, I would have been stunned. Now, it seemed the last puzzle piece in something I had been gathering since I started hiking.

The conversation was deep, and I cannot tell you what was said. I don’t mean that I forgot it—I remember it clearly enough. I don’t really mean that it would be a breach of confidence—it might be that as well. What I mean is that there was something special in that room, and it would not make much sense to you even if I could explain it. If I were to say that we talked in a room without light, where you had to feel around to move about—it would be literally true, but beside the point. When I remember the room, I do not think about what wasn’t there, but what was there. I was glad I took off my watch—but I cannot say why. The best thing I can say is that if you can figure out how a person could be aware of a succession of moments, and at the same time have time sense that is not entirely linear—or at very least not just linear—you have a glimpse of what I found in that room.

We talked long, and it was late into the next day when I got up from a perfectly ordinary guestroom, packed, and left. I put on my watch, returned to my business, and started working on the backlog of invoices and meetings that accumulated in my absence. I’m still pretty busy, but I have never left that room.

The Spectacles

Unashamed

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

Why This Waste?